Patricia Arquette Is a Sleuthing and Hustling Delight in Private Investigator Comedy 'High Desert'

Apple TV+'s latest star-studded series focuses on a recovering addict-turned-detective in California's Yucca Valley.
Sarah Ward
May 17, 2023

The last time that Patricia Arquette graced the small screen before High Desert, she was icy and commanding, pulling company-controlled strings and overseeing a corporate-styled sci-fi nightmare world. Other than also streaming via Apple TV+, 2022's instant-standout first season of Severance has little in common with the Boyhood Oscar-winner and The Act and Medium Emmy-winner's latest project. Here, she leads a private investigator comedy that dapples its jam-packed chaos under California's golden sun, against the parched Yucca Valley landscape and with an anything-goes philosophy — not to mention a more-mayhem-the-merrier tone.

In High Desert, the always-excellent Arquette plays Peggy Newman, who isn't letting her age get in the way of perennially struggling to pull her life together. That said, when the eight-part series opens — streaming from Wednesday, May 17 — it's Thanksgiving 2013 and she's living an upscale existence in Palm Springs, with gleaming surfaces abounding in her expansive (and visibly expensive) home. Then, as her husband Denny (Matt Dillon, Proxima) jokes around with her mother Roslyn (Bernadette Peters, Mozart in the Jungle), and her younger siblings Dianne (Christine Taylor, Search Party) and Stewart (Keir O'Donnell, The Dry) lap up the lavish festivities, DEA agents swarm outside. Cue weed, hash and cash stashes being flushed and trashed, but not quickly enough to avoid splashing around serious repercussions.

A decade later, High Desert's protagonist has been sharing Roslyn's house and trying to kick her addictions while working at Pioneertown, a historical attraction that gives tourists a dusty, gun-toting taste of frontier life. Peggy would love to step back in time herself when she's not pretending to be a saloon barmaid — to when her recently deceased mother was still alive, however, rather than to her glitzy post-arrest shindigs. Still angry about being caught up in a drug bust, Dianne and Stewart have zero time for her nostalgia and a lack of patience left for her troubles. Their plan: to sell Roslyn's abode with no worries about where Peggy might end up. Her counter: doing everything she can to stop that from happening.

High Desert doesn't just embrace the fact that living and breathing is merely weathering whatever weird, wild and sometimes-wonderful shambles fate throws your way; in a show created and written by Nurse Jackie and Damages alumni Jennifer Hoppe and Nancy Fichman, plus Miss Congeniality and Desperate Housewives' Katie Ford, that idea dictates the busy plot, too. The end result isn't quite in Mrs Davis territory but, as Peggy decides to talk her way into moonlighting as a private investigator for local detective Bruce Harvey (Brad Garrett, Bupkis) after he rips off her best friend Carol (Weruche Opia, I May Destroy You), it repeatedly proves gleefully ridiculous. Instead of a nun fighting AI, this series spans stolen art, an anchorman-turned-guru (Rupert Friend, Obi-Wan Kenobi) whose motto is "everything is stupid!", a missing mafia family member (Tonya Glanz, Hightown), and father-daughter assassins (American Horror Story's Carlo Rota and Tuning In's Julia Rickert) with debts to collect and a penchant for slicing off nipples.

Also filling High Desert's frames: blasting people out of canons, a wine- and car-stealing teen (Jayden Gomez, Love) with an all-seeing drone, Denny getting out of prison and chasing new schemes, a talking parrot plucking out its own feathers, and an actor who looks so much like Roslyn (and is also played by the great Peters) that Peggy decides to write a cathartic play around her to work through her mummy issues. For a show taking place in sleepy surroundings — Yucca Valley's IRL population is just over 21,000 — there's nothing placid about the hectic parade of capers it unfurls against the rocky setting. As an illustration of life's non-stop bedlam, though, this happily shaggy ode to sleuthing, hustling and trying to get by always feels authentic.

How does anyone navigate their days when there's a lifetime of pain to sift through and just as much baggage to carry, everyone's right choice is someone else's wrong option, and we're all just making it all up as we go along? That's High Desert's vibe — and while it's never afraid to be OTT, it's also wonderfully astute. Adding another memorable role to a four-decades-long resume filled with them, and bringing to mind True Romance's Alabama but 30 years on, Arquette is a key reason that the series plays as engagingly and thoughtfully as it does. She's a committed comic gem as a woman who is never willing to be anything less than herself no matter the costs and consequences, and she's also both a source of pandemonium and a trusty anchor.

Arquette is in fine company, with Dillon in There's Something About Mary mode, Friend demonstrating his knack for comedy as the immediately absurd Guru Bob, Garrett adding another interesting part to his post-Everybody Loves Raymond resume and Peters an on-screen treasure as always. Indeed, High Desert's stacks-on feeling echoes everywhere under director Jay Roach's (Bombshell) guidance, from the series' lead performance to its supporting players, and also including its bouncing plot and vivid imagery — brightly, involvingly, entertainingly, and never just throwing more and more hijinks in for the sake of it.

With a PI job front and centre, hitmen to avoid and a disappearance to solve, High Desert joins Apple TV+'s packed lineup of mysteries. Severance, Servant, Black Bird, The AfterpartyBad SistersHello Tomorrow!, The Big Door Prize, Silo, this: they all fit the mould, filling the platform's catalogue with what's clearly its favourite genre. In fact, High Desert's biggest disappointment is that it doesn't lean in further, giving more time and attention to Peggy's no-nonsense detective talents in the spirit of Veronica Mars and Poker Face. Perhaps that's a road for season two to drive down, should another go-around eventuate. With Arquette being a delight at the show's the centre again, more would be welcome.

Check out the trailer for High Desert below:

High Desert streams via Apple TV+ from Wednesday, May 17.

Published on May 17, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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