Matt Dillon and Patricia Arquette star in High Desert from Apple TV+.
PHOTO COURTESY APPLE TV+
For almost as long as people have been wandering into it, the desert has served as a backdrop to personal reinventions.
Festivalgoers blow into town for a weekend designed to indulge the most camera-ready versions of their repressed ids. Architects venture to the desert to experiment with new forms against a seemingly blank slate. Con artists move out to the hinterlands to steal a bit of glamour from the stark landscape’s closeness to death and dub themselves shamans.
If anyone could use a reinvention, it’s Peggy Newman. The protagonist of High Desert — the latest series from Apple TV+, which premiered May 17 —is a former drug dealer and recovering addict barely holding on to the scraps of a once-ritzy life in the Coachella Valley. Starring Patricia Arquette, the series from writing team Katie Ford, Nancy Fichman, and Jennifer Hoppe-House picks up several years after a dramatic DEA raid on Thanksgiving upends Peggy’s life (and just weeks after the death of her mother).
Peggy makes ends meet via a series of odd jobs that include working as a historical reenactor in a slowly drowning version of Pioneertown and working in the office of equally precarious private investigator Bruce (Brad Garrett). Fichman hatched the idea for the series years ago, originally setting the drama around Tucson and another Old West stage show.
“This [show] has been around forever,” Hoppe-House says. “Originally, Nancy wrote it with her sister. When [her sister] passed, [Nancy] was looking for ideas for the eulogy and pulled out this script.”
Fichman and Hoppe-House reworked the script, eventually getting it in front of Patricia Arquette. And it was the soon-to-be star of the show who pushed for High Desert to be set in, well, the High Desert.
Arquette took them on a whirlwind tour of the area, including Pioneertown and Joshua Tree’s World Famous Crochet Museum, Hoppe-House recalls. Arquette’s point was that the occasionally glitzy and always intimidating California desert was much more suitable for an oddball like Peggy. The showrunners agreed.
Hoppe-House notes that the desert is “full of prophets and fugitives and people who don’t want to be found” yet also carries the legacy of midcentury high society and celebrities like Frank Sinatra. It’s where Peggy is because it’s exactly the sort of place a lover of fine things who nevertheless finds herself drawn to troubled souls would end up.
In Fichman and Hoppe-House’s vision, the worn-down glamour of Yucca Valley and the surrounding area is reflected in nearly every aspect of the story. Every endeavor Peggy undertakes is on the verge of collapse and held together by her sheer tenacity. She soldiers on in her do-over like the comically battered and somehow still running sedan she drives around in the early episodes, mirroring Arquette’s own fight to get the series made.
“Patricia sunk her teeth into this and refused to let go,” Hoppe-House says. “She took it to [executive producer] Ben Stiller. She fought for this, and we owe everything to her, really.”
In a perfect blending of story and setting, the resulting show harks back to midcentury Southern California noirs, something the “elevated thriller” writing veterans are more than familiar with. Like the purifying work of sand and sun, they’ve blasted away the murky contours of Los Angeles and revealed their ultimately sorta-funny core. The story is perfectly tuned for Fichman and Hoppe-House, who have spent decades working in Hollywood and have crafted a story that seems truly tired of artifice, glitter, and other forms of bullshit.
“We’ve been doing this for a really long time,” Fichman says. “I’m glad the show is happening now. I worry for people who [become successful] too early.”
Just ask Peggy. Burning too bright too soon led to her fall from a Palm Springs hobnobber to a semi-legal private eye on line at a High Desert methadone clinic. Still, you get the sense that Peggy’s trying to make the most of her new life and bring everyone else with her.
“She takes care of the broken birds around her,” says Hoppe-House.
“Everybody wants a Peggy in their lives,” Finchman adds.
The thing about attempted reinventions is this: They are never quite complete, especially when you’re trying to leave behind the crab bucket of long-term substance abuse. The desert can sandblast a person down, peeling away layers of artifice, but the core is still there. The festivalgoer is still an Angeleno at heart. The architect’s inspiration turns into something thoroughly urban. The con artist’s grift is laid bare. Even sober and working, Peggy is still the type of person who can’t suppress her need to live loudly, like when she uses a sudden windfall to buy a dune buggy to get around town.
As Peggy attempts to will herself out of her midlife morass and leave behind her criminal past, the people around her get dragged deeper and deeper into a web of murderous art-world criminals, huckster gurus, and loveable drug dealers.
You never lose the sense that Peggy and her thinly veiled bulldog ferocity are going to make it out, though. She’s the type to pickpocket plumbers in service of friends and rob pills from charlatans to make enough for a night of bingo. In short, she’s a survivor, and she sees to it that the people she loves survive, too.
This is underlined in an early episode when Peggy sees a flower growing out of a cactus and is overwhelmed. (The fact that she’s likely tripping on LSD is irrelevant.) In a bit of dialogue that could easily sum up Peggy and the show’s whole thesis, Arquette tells the delicate plant about itself: “You’re going to outlive us all.”