In 1989, CBS aired the eight-hour adaptation of Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove. Now, nearly 20 years later, CBS attempts to recapture the power and the glory of that Emmy Award-winning spectacle with a six-hour interpretation of McMurtry's prequel to that story, COMANCHE MOON.
Part 1, which aired on Sunday, January 13, continues on Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 15 and 16 at 9 p.m. If you remember the original Lonesome Dove, the two main characters were Woodrow Call, played by Tommy Lee Jones, and Gus McCrae, played by Robert Duvall, two old Texas Rangers who embark on a 2,000-mile cattle dirve. This new series centers on their earlier years just preceding the American Civil War.
At first, what you notice is the extreme lack of emotional, dramatic power brought by Oscar-winning actors Jones and Duvall. What you get instead are two performances played more for laughs than any real substance. Woodrow and Gus have a friendship and bond that really showed itself in the original series where they could bicker and argue with each other and you felt it was the stayed bond of two really good companions, a sentiment that would be echoed years later in McMurtry's rendering of Brokeback Mountain.
Here, however, the relationship between Woodrow and Gus feels almost like a comedy skit. They are at first lieutenants in a band of Texas Rangers in pursuit of some Comanche Indian raiders and horse thieves. Their captain is man named Inish Scull, portrayed by Val Kilmer (The Doors and Batman Forever). Scull is a Yankee aristocrat and Mexican War hero, but his behavior is so kooky and strange that it seems as if for his section of the movie, you think you're watching a Saturday Night Live or MADtv sketch.
Australian actress Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under and Brothers & Sisters) plays Scull's wife Inez. She's a snob who is brutal and downright mean to her Negro servants, and when she's not, she is busy seducing boys young enough to be her son. One in particular, Jake Spoon, she twiddles around her little finger, but most of the time, it feels as if Griffiths is doing a bad impression of Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, a very bad impression.
From what I remember from the original Lonesome Dove, there was little focus, except tangential, of the Indian forces that surrounded. Here, there seems to be more of a concerted effort to bring out the Indian characters. It's still through the point-of-view of the Texans most of the time, but a lot more attention is granted this time around than before.
Unlike in the 1989 series, we're actually introduced to the Indians. We're given their names and we're allowed to hear the Indians speak in their native languages with subtitles for us to read. We didn't get that in the previous series. The producers of this show really were shooting for as much authenticity as possible. With recent epic films about Indian experiences like The New World and Apocalypto, this is proving to be a 21st century trend.
Another new millennium trend is the idea of prequels, the idea of taking a popular character or popular characters and showing their back-story or their early years to provide context. George Lucas started it with his Indiana Jones and Star Wars prequels, and it's continued today, but the tone here feels all wrong. There was a weight and serious aura to the 1989 series that is simply lost here. The new series is too light and airy. Seemingly the producers wanted to play up the romance, but it simply feels misplaced, and bad reviews from The New York Times, USA Today and Newsday would seem to confirm.
While we're also intrigued with more characterization of the Comanche Indians in this new series, besides the fact that some Indians either don't like the whites or they're just heartless horse thieves, we're not given that much depth to their side of things. In my opinion, no TV series or film that wasn't a documentary has ever truly portrayed the plight of the Indians to give us who aren't any real understanding. The HBO film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee came very close, but this is only Part 1. The other installments may prove more enlightening.
Simon Wincer, the same director from the 1989 series, returns to direct this new show. His techniques here were nothing impressive to me. Compared to westerns I've seen in the past year like Seraphim Falls and The Assassination of Jesse James, this piece had me underwhelmed.
Two Stars out of Five.
Continues on Tuesday, Jan. 15 and on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 9 p.m.