TV

'Longmire' Is a Handsome Contemporary Western

Maysa Hattab

Despite its early dependence on Western and Gender War clichés, Longmire shows potential.


Longmire

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET
Cast: Robert Taylor, Bailey Chase, Lou Diamond Philips, Katee Sackhoff
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: A&E;
Air date: 2012-06-03
Website
Trailer
Amazon

Longmire is a handsome contemporary Western, but it holds few surprises. Within the first 10 minutes of the pilot, it ticks off the basic elements you'd expect in the genre, introducing a vast, cruel, and beautiful landscape that is policed by a grizzled, recently widowed sheriff, who comes complete with badge, rifle, and cowboy hat. He has terrible scars on his back and drives a Ram truck, the latter courtesy a series contract with Chrysler.

Before the end of the first episode, which premieres on A&E on 3 June, Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) will be involved in a barroom confrontation, where he and Henry (Lou Diamond Philips) face off with a jukebox in the background, their hands near their holsters, slow zooms onto shadowed faces ensuring we know the menace the men mean to convey to one another. The scene closes with a familiar shot, one man stalking out through saloon-style doors, the other left behind, a low angle on his face making clear that he's contemplating the almost showdown.

Such generic details are appealing to a city-bred English girl whose knowledge of Wyoming comes almost exclusively from TV and a geographically imprecise recall of the odd Jack London or Nicholas Evans novel. They might even speak to a certain yearning in American audiences, real or imagined, for the mythology of Big Sky Country, where both citizens and local lawmen remain suspicious of federal interference. But where these details are enlivened by operatic violence and a brooding atmosphere in, say, Justified, to take a most obvious example, in Longmire, they only suggest that we've seen this place before.

The first episode introduces Walt, sheriff for Absaroka County, Wyoming, as he's returning to work after time off following his wife's death. His approach is laidback and his surroundings downright folksy, exemplified during an early scene down at the sheriff's office, where all the officers seem to know everyone in town, oddballs included. This cozy setup is interrupted by the discovery of a high school teacher's bullet-riddled corpse and a sex-trafficking ring in town. Walt's experience is complemented by that of his new partner, Vic (Katee Sackhoff), a former Philadelphia homicide detective. Their investigation is complicated by local politics and Longmire's state of mind, signposted throughout the episode -- by acquaintances who remark on his loss and by his own sad-faced reactions to reminders of his wife.

As he's struggling with his grief, Walt also faces a loss of confidence and competition from a young, smarmy deputy named Branch (Bailey Chase), running in an upcoming election for Walt's job. So we know how he feels about himself, he comments that the antique murder weapon "might be old, still gets the job done." Sackhoff's wry expression in response makes this on-the-nose metaphor just about forgivable and cuts through its sentimentality. Other scenes are less agile, providing too much backstory, so we're assured Walt's an authentic fellow and so can withstand challenges from Branch or anyone else.

If Walt's not much of a mystery, Vic is different, from both him and from the rest of her associates. A tough young woman with her own ideas about the world (she complains early on that investigating dead sheep probably isn't the best use of her time), she confronts obstacles Walt never will, including daily displays of sexism from the locals and the apparently never-ending need to prove herself to her male peers. As she's played by Sackhoff -- whom so many of us loved as the cigar-chomping Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica -- Vic seems both self-aware and hardly startled by the violence and silliness around her. The first episode suggests she and Walt share a mutual respect, at least as much as this old guy can manage.

Despite its early dependence on Western and Gender War clichés, Longmire shows potential. It reveals right off some festering tensions between the town and the reservation, which has its own set of police and traditions, as well as some resentment toward the white townspeople. And while this first episode's whodunnit is neatly tied up, and also a little too predictable (given the preoccupation of so many police procedurals with the exploitation of young girls), the murder and the reasons for it unfold with a degree of compassion.

This has partly to do with Longmire's old-fashioned detecting methods. A Luddite of sorts, he eschews ballistics and forensics as a means to get his man. This is, of course, another cliché, but it's less frequently visible now that we're so deeply immersed in the blue lights and synthy soundtracks of CSI. Still, as Longmire reminds us, neither new school nor old in cop shows is without troubles, whether relying on gadgetry to the exclusion of common sense, or resisting at least some forms of progress.

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