(Revised June 12)
There’s a promising new contemporary western airing on A&E this summer, Longmire, starring Robert Taylor as Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. The premiere episode aired this past Sunday, with the second episode, “A Damn Shame” airing a week later—with both episodes apparently bringing in good ratings. The series is based on the novels by Craig Johnson, and the premiere was based (very very loosely) on the first novel in the series, The Cold Dish.
There are seven or eight Longmire novels currently in print, and I’ve only read the first one. It’s a good solid mystery novel that makes effective use of its western setting—Wyoming’s Absaroka County. In The Cold Dish, the presence of the Cheyenne Indian reservation in the county is central to the story’s plot, and the necessity of Walt having to negotiate this frontier with another sovereign nation seems central to the series as a whole. Walt’s best friend is Henry Standing Bear, former Vietnam Vet and AIM activist, and current owner and operator of the Red Pony bar (named in homage to the John Steinbeck story). “The Bear” is part of a long line of faithful Indian companions to white western heroes, but Johnson is at least aware that he is participating in a genre staple that often involves stereotypes, and The Cold Dish plays around with that fact (it’s Henry that refers to Walt as “Tonto”). Early in the novel, the effort to make Henry “iconoclastic” (his favorite football team is the Kansas City Chiefs, he prefers the term Indian to Native American, and he likes the fact that sports teams have Native mascots) is a bit wearying, but he ultimately emerges as an individualized and interesting character—one who plays a major role in the story.
The other interesting secondary character in the series is Victoria Moretti, or Vic, who is a transplanted Philadelphia policeman, notable for her police abilities, fondness of sarcastic remarks, and a very foul mouth. Her dialogue (especially her answering machine messages) is one of the highlights of The Cold Dish.
Longmire, the series, has a lot to establish with its first episode, the character of widower Walt Longmire, the cast of secondary characters, as well as the mystery itself (a dead body, a missing girl). Of the secondary characters, Vic (played by Katee Sackhoff) gets the most emphasis in the premiere, although, alas, A&E does not allow her the full range of expression that she has in the novel. On the plus side, she does have an opportunity in “A Damn Shame” to demonstrate how to use a pole dance to elicit information from witnesses.
Henry Standing Bear, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, is a promising character, but he receives very little screen time in the premiere, and even less in “A Damn Shame.” He does help get Walt onto the reservation (hidden in the back of his famous—for fans of the novel—green truck), after Walt angers the tribal police. Hopefully, he will receive more emphasis in later episodes. It’s rare in American television to see Native characters in contemporary settings, so kudos to Longmire for not only casting Lou Diamond Phillips but also several other indigenous actors in this episode (including the lovely and talented Irene Bedard as the mother of the missing girl). “A Damn Shame” explores a story involving another ethnic group, Mennonites, and it’s an interesting mystery combined with an unusual story for a western (Mennonites in westerns are as unusual as finding a message written in Pennsylvania Dutch in Wyoming—a key clue in this mystery). I hope we return to stories involving Walt’s Cheyenne neighbors, but kudos to Longmire for tackling a story that falls outside the usual plots and characters of a western.
In the novels, Walt is nearing retirement age, and in casting Robert Taylor as Walt, the series has chosen to make him a younger character. In The Cold Dish, Walt is 4 years into widowhood; in the series, he has just hit the first anniversary of his wife’s death. That his friends are becoming concerned about his continuing depression and mourning after 4 years makes sense, but one year doesn’t seem that long for the kind of comments the characters make in Longmire.
So, there were a lot of things I liked about the series, and two things that I didn’t. The editing is hyperactive, more like a music video or a gritty urban crime drama, than a story about the rural West. I mean, I understand that rapid editing may contribute to the excitement of a chase scene, but do we really need a dozen cuts while our hero is making his morning coffee? Likewise, the first episode has adopted the “shaky cam” style that was edgy ten years ago but that is now just clichéd. And it’s a style that, like the editing, seems particularly jarring given then the story and setting. Even 10-15 years younger than he is in the novels, Walt is still not a fast-moving flashy character, so I’m not sure why the episode was edited like a music video.
“A Damn Shame” is quite a bit calmer in terms of editing, the camera somewhat steadier throughout.
The other thing that I didn’t like about the premiere is the absence of an important element of the novel, Walt’s self-deprecating humor, delivered in part through his narration. Robert Taylor does a lot of squinting, and his dialogue is often delivered in a pinched western-hero-who-never-likes-to-talk-when-he-could-be-shooting style. The novel often makes fun of western clichés (of one character’s over-the-top western dialect, Walt comments, “It was like riding with Louis L’Amour”). And, before the end of The Cold Dish, Walt has given almost every character who needs one a consoling hug (not the sort of character trait that you see in, say, the typical Clint Eastwood character). Part of the pleasure of The Cold Dish is the way it both evokes western conventions and also finds interesting departures from them. I hope more of those “atypical” elements of Walt’s character make it into the series–especially his humor.
New Mexico plays the part of Wyoming in Longmire.
The next episode airs Sunday night at 10 pm (eastern) on A&E.