[10 January 2008]
They don’t make miniseries like they used to.
“Comanche Moon” shows why that’s a bad thing.
And a good thing.
There’s the epic feel of sweeping Western vistas, of history written before our eyes, of people living legendary adventures, of swelling music and majestic emotions.
And then there’s the swell of time ticking on as people look small on those vast landscapes, as history feels antique, as too little majesty is rendered for all the effort expended upon it.
Hollywood doesn’t know how to make miniseries anymore, certainly not like the classic “Lonesome Dove” of 1989, for which CBS’ new “Comanche Moon” serves as a direct prequel. (The 1996 mini “Dead Man’s Walk” went further back, portraying the youth of the tale’s two Texas Rangers.) Even with the same artistic team from the original eight-hour triumph back for this six-hour production - novel authors Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, producer Dyson Lovell and director Simon Wincer - and with a whole new Texans-vs.-Indians chapter to tell, “Moon” feels like much ado about not much.
Of course, what we don’t have back is the golden star triumvirate of Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and Anjelica Huston. We now get Steve Zahn, Karl Urban and Linda Cardellini, which is kind of like an infamously lopsided sports trade. Zahn is plenty fine as Duvall’s younger though still ornery Texas Ranger Gus McCrae, but the quality drops off precipitously from there.
Maybe quality isn’t the problem, though. Maybe it’s simply intent. All the actors in “Comanche Moon” seem to be acting in entirely different projects. Take two of the more interesting characters - Val Kilmer’s wacky Yankee turned Ranger commander Inish Scull, around whose lone pursuit of a horse thief much of the action revolves, and Rachel Griffiths’ Inez Scull, a whip-cracking “Southern slut” of a wife, bedding everything in town until her loony love comes home.
Griffiths is all 1980s miniseries melodrama with her lusty gusto, over the top and stomping, while the deliriously hammy Kilmer goes for the camp inherent in a poetry-spouting song-crooning half-wacko who goes whole hog after a sadistic desperado maroons him in a desert pit filled with snakes.
Why? Who knows? That’s certainly the feel of Sunday’s first two-hour section, which meanders leisurely without making clear who these people are, what they’re doing or why we should care.
When Inez declares that Gus, whom she wants to retrieve her hostage husband, is “slouchy,” she has just about summarized the entire production.
Not that “Comanche Moon” doesn’t try to make things exciting. It simply doesn’t know how. There’s wanton torture that comes off as gratuitous violence. There’s general abuse of women that plays like “historic” misogyny. There’s the ever-popular demonizing of minorities, turning those thieving Comanches and Mexicans into bloodthirsty ne’er-do-wells rather than aggrieved parties.
Things pick up a bit on Tuesday, when the miniseries discovers comic relief among snorting runaway bulls and our Ranger odd couple discovers an open-air saloon run by a colorful French couple starting a town called Lonesome Dove. But Urban’s numbly laconic sidekick Woodrow Call is still dull as the dust, the antagonists remain mustache-twirling baddies, and everybody’s mostly playacting.
Too bad. What we wouldn’t give, in this age of cheap “reality” overload, for a solidly scripted and lushly filmed miniseries of beautifully played humanity. Or even histrionic humanity. Either way, at least it’s grand entertainment. Unfortunately, the watery stew of “Comanche Moon” is likely to warn Hollywood off such big-time effort altogether.