When Patricia Arquette read the script for “High Desert,” the actress knew she wanted to star in the offbeat TV series about a Yucca Valley woman who decides to reinvent herself as a private investigator.
“Their voice was very clear,” Arquette says of the “High Desert” creators’ vision. “And they were incredible with comedy and black comedy, and that sort of weird sense of humor that I have. So that was the beginning of this thing.”
That was in 2016, a year after Arquette won an Oscar, Golden Globe, and an armful of other prizes for her acting in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” And even though she went on to make such acclaimed TV series as “Escape at Dannemora,” “The Act,” and “Severance” in the years that followed, Arquette never abandoned “High Desert.”
“We tried to sell it everywhere and finally we found a home at Apple TV+,” she says. “You know, it’s risqué material. It’s a farce. It’s a counterculture comedy. It’s got all these strange characters who are, like, lost a little bit and making a lot of mistakes.”
“High Desert” premieres on Apple TV+ with three episodes on Wednesday, May 17; all eight episodes of the series are directed by Jay Roach.
Arquette plays Peggy Newman, a woman whose tribulations don’t ever entirely get her down, though her frustrating almost-ex-husband Denny, played by Matt Dillon, can frustrate her no end. The cast also includes Bernadette Peters as a ’70s TV actress who reminds Peggy of her mother, and Rupert Friend as Guru Bob, a former TV news anchor turned sketchy spiritual leader.
Weruche Opia is Peggy’s best friend Carol and Kier O’Donnell and Christine Taylor are her straight-laced brother and sister Stewart and Dianne. Brad Garrett is the morose private investigator who reluctantly agrees to let Peggy work with him.
All except Garrett recently talked on video calls about “High Desert,” speaking about everything from the appeal of their characters and the tone of the show to the significance of the California desert in it.
“There’s a lot of love in it, and there’s a lot of family in it,” Arquette says of the ensemble and the story that unfolds mostly in the high desert. “And a lot of people make a lot of dumb decisions and dumb mistakes and chaos ensues everywhere they go.”
A ‘criminal-ish’ couple
Peggy and Denny are a couple that shouldn’t really be together, though only Peggy seems to see that and even she can’t seem to quit her no-good husband.
“He’s constitutionally not able to be honest, you know, that’s the thing,” Dillon says on a video call with Arquette recently. “As much as he wants to – his heart’s in the right place – he can’t help manipulating because he’s got that criminal element to him.”
Not that he’s just a criminal, Dillon adds.
“There’s a lot of duality there,” he says. “He’s spiritual but he’s also a criminal. The spirituality is a kind of newfound thing, and there’s a little bit of B.S. in all this, but he really does believe it.”
Arquette says she sees the couple as perfectly suited for each other in both the best and worst ways.
“Her mother’s kind of a childlike figure and her dad was not the world’s greatest masculine figure, so Denny stepped into that position with the family as a provider,” she says. “Kind of the patriarch of this family through this skewed lens of a criminal-ish person with a beautiful heart.
“They both have these great hearts,” Arquette says. “They both tend to be a little bit of a criminal. They both can deceive you. They have their own rules for society. But she does know that Denny truly loves her and would die for her if need be.
“Like Matt said, Denny would be the one to put her in a position of having someone shoot at them. So he might take a bullet for her, but he’s also going to put her in the position where someone’s shooting bullets at her.”
Light and dark
While “High Desert” most closely resembles a comedy – think of the Coen Brothers’ films – its tone shifts in and out of darker moods as the episodes unfold. For many in the cast, that was part of the appeal of taking on their roles.
“It’s presenting the human condition of difficulties and addictions that some people may have,” Peters says. “And yet trying to overcome the obstacles even if you put the obstacles in your own way.
“I think it will be kind of subconscious for people when they see the show,” she says. “It is this funny show going on, and irreverent, and a murder mystery. And yet there’s this underlying loss that Peggy’s going through, and just trying to move forward.”
That blurring of the line between comedy and tragedy was attractive to Friend as he considered taking on the role of Guru Bob.
“The other day I was talking with my wife about the fact that 30 or 40 years ago in storytelling we had goodies and baddies,” the English actor says. “You had kind of big ’80s movies and there was a bad guy and there was a girl and there was a hero. And it was all quite sort of black and white.
“I’m really grateful that we’re working at a time when those edges have all been blurred,” Friend says. “People do good things for bad intentions. Peggy sometimes makes a hell of a mess of things but her heart is absolutely in the right place.
“We’re able to blend genres and I think the world is a richer place in storytelling for that,” he says.
O’Donnell and Taylor play the straight man and woman to Arquette as Peggy. They’re grounded and serious and yet love their sister, much as co-showrunner Nancy Fichman loved the sister on whom she loosely based the character of Peggy.
“The things that appeal to me are things based in some sort of a reflection of our own lives,” O’Donnell says. “And this show certainly has that. It was always trying to find that balance of how dark can we get with these pretty intense subjects without it dipping into full-blown drama.
“Peggy’s continually saying to us, ‘Remember the good old days, you guys?’ And it’s like, ‘What are you talking about it?’” he continues. “She has this sort of bizarre revisionist history.
“There’s something incredibly sad but sweet about that. So that was always the line we were trying to dance around.”
In the desert
Arquette says it was important to her to shoot as much of “High Desert” in locations as close as possible to its setting and much of the series is shot in Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Palm Springs. (An exception: Pioneertown, where Peggy works in a Wild West Show, was recreated at the Sable Ranch movie backlot in Santa Clarita.)
“The people that gravitate to the desert are a little fringy sometimes,” she says. “A little living their own way. Or they didn’t quite work where they were with their families and they end up here. Their nature is the coyote nature. It’s the, ‘I’m gonna figure out a way to survive with very little resources.’”
To the rest of the cast, that felt right, too.
“It was lovely and picturesque to actually be in the desert,” she says. “I think that setting the show there definitely adds to the tone of the show. That juxtaposition of how life is, the highs and lows of what’s going on.”
Taylor, who as the proper Palm Springs resident shows up in the Yucca Valley desert in heels and a blazer, agreed that the locations worked to enhance the storytelling.
“It really was its own character,” she says. “Keir and I have talked about it, that the desert, there is this sort of magical, mystical, lawless aspect of sort of being out in the wild, wild west where Peggy is making these big decisions and we are very fish out of water.”
Peters says she’s not a desert person – its hot, dry clime makes her uncomfortable, she says – though the beautiful sunsets and the unexpected delight of cactus blossoms moved her.
“In the midst of it all, you’ll have a prickly cactus blooming with a beautiful flower,” she says. “You have those sunsets that are gorgeous. So here’s her life that’s really sort of falling apart, and yet there’s hope.
“Pretty remarkable,” Peters says. “When a cactus can bloom, it’s kind of breathtaking when you see something like that happening. It looks like it doesn’t even need water to survive, and yet here comes this beautiful flower. It’s kind of a miracle.”
Veteran TV news reporter Tony Valdez has died
How (and when) to watch King Charles’ coronation in the US
Lisa Vanderpump’s West Hollywood restaurant Pump set to close
Report: Tucker Carlson’s racist text helped his ouster from Fox
How ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything’ restores the rock ‘n’ roll icon to his throne