In its first season Longmire was the highest rated scripted series on A&E and one of the highest rated scripted summer series on TV. Even if the show lost some of its element of surprise in its second season, it still has a solid enough core fan base to qualify as a seasonal juggernaut. If only everything in popular culture made as much sense as this. The show is unapologetically old-school episodic TV, and the most startling thing about it may be the “unapologetic” part. Most of the hit cable shows of the past 10 or 12 years that have tried for some degree of a retro episodic vibe—like Burn Notice—have a fanciful lightness that is borderline spoofy; it’s as if, having decided not to climb aboard the solemn antihero bandwagon, the creators of those shows concluded there wasn’t a lot of middle ground between Walter White and Maxwell Smart. This summer, the antiheroes have really been throwing their weight around; pretty every much new dramatic series on TV, from the pretentious moral squalor of Ray Donovan to the damaged and ethically compromised undercover cops of Graceland, feels the need to stand up and say, “This is not your father’s TV show.” Longmire is the one holdout saying, “You know, the old man wasn’t wrong about everything. Near as I can recall, he did like The Rockford Files.”
Longmire promises its audience straightforward, one-mystery-at-a-time entertainment, with a hero viewers can like and feel good about rooting for, and a supporting cast that can stir up some comedy and subplots to be enjoyed. If all else fails, the modern-Western setting, with its professional trackers and land barons and friction between Sheriff Longmire’s jurisdiction and the tribal police on “the rez,” is an unusual milieu, and the scenery sure does look great. (The show is set in Wyoming, but mostly filmed in New Mexico.) The promise itself would seem embarrassing if the show didn’t have the equipment to back it up. Maybe the highest compliment I can pay the show is that, while I’m watching, it doesn’t seem as corny as it sounds.
In genre film and TV, cornball is as cornball does. There are any number of producers who probably wish they could cook up a show like this—and that number rises every time a rare success like Longmore demonstrates there’s an audience for it. But the other thing Longmire demonstrates is that there’s a reason it’s rare for a show to successfully deliver this kind of meat-and-potatoes satisfaction. This one can because it has two things that most similar attempts just don’t have: Conviction and Robert Taylor. A strapping, 50-ish Australian, Taylor was reportedly in the first Matrix movie, playing one of the “agents” who wasn’t played by Hugo Weaving, though if you haven’t looked at that movie in a while, you could be forgiven for not remembering there were any agents besides Hugo Weaving. As Longmire, he uses a deep, dry voice that makes him sound as if he’s spent half his life driving down dirt roads with the window rolled down and his mouth open. Taylor has a bruiser’s physique, but the murder of Longmire’s wife has sensitized him to the value of life, and his approach to law enforcement is more pragmatic than moralistic. Taylor makes the show work partly just by how well he fulfills the genre requirements of his role. As an actor, he can project sensitivity well enough to put across the idea that it’s Walt’s reluctance to rush to judgment and his hesitancy about resorting to violence that make him a hero, but it helps that he could clearly be more of an ass-kicking badass if he wanted to be. (In one scene in tonight’s episode, he loses his shit and basically beats up his office.)
All the things that worked in Longmire’s first season continue to work in its second; that includes the byplay between Taylor and Katee Sackoff, as the fish-out-of-water deputy Vic, and Lou Diamond Phillips as Longmire’s best friend, Henry. (I’ll admit to not following Phillips’ career closely, so I don’t know what the hell has happened to him since La Bamba, but he’s turned into the kind of guy who can turn up on The Soup one week, leering and gyrating behind Joel McHale, and then return to his day job on Longmire and deliver a line like “It is time to get your spiritual affairs in order,” in a way that would inspire me to break a land speed record getting to the nearest Buddhist temple.) And Bailey Chase has made a likable foil out of the potentially thankless role of Branch, the deputy who tried to unseat Walt in the last election and was secretly sleeping with his daughter to boot; Chase makes sly comedy out of those moments when Branch suspects he may have become more of an asshole than his political ambitions actually require.
On the down side, Longmire has spent more time this season threading in slowly simmering plot threads that take up a lot of ominous space in one episode and then disappear for weeks at a time. The need to finally bring some of these to a boil turns the season finale into a bit of a clusterfuck. Charles Dutton has dropped in from time to time to flash his menacing smile as the big-city detective investigating the murder of the meth head who killed Walt’s wife; those who’ve been on the edge of their seats waiting to find out who did it will have to content themselves with the news that the avenging killer was not Henry, who the show seemed to be offering up as a likely suspect, nor was it Hector, the mysterious deliverer of violent justice, who, it turns out, Henry thought was guilty. Considering that Henry pushed Hector in the meth head’s direction, and Hector brought him back the man’s teeth as trophies, his confusion was understandable.
My own hope was that Dutton’s character would win the lottery and quit police work, and we’d never hear from him again. Instead, he shows up tonight, has Henry dragged off in handcuffs, then delivers a very peculiar speech about how he can see the evil in Walt, a speech that seems meant to show that he himself has been warped and made obsessive ad crazy by his hatred of the bad sheriffs he knew as a kid; presumably, he became a detective so he could be on equal footing with them and then do what he could to bring them down. I’m not crazy about the whole “Henry as murder suspect” angle, but the poor guy really does look guilty as hell. If the writers are determined to have him wrongly accused, they don’t have to turn his accuser into Inspector Javert.
The plotline involving Vic and a stalker (Lee Tergesen) from her past may be even worse, considering that, in the last couple of episodes, it’s served as an excuse to hint there may be hidden feelings between Walt and Vic. I had been hoping for another appearance from Katherine La Nasa as Lizzie, the hot, rich blonde who lives to throw herself at Walt, with dismayingly mixed results; he’s seemed too preoccupied with protecting the citizenry and maybe too eaten up with grief over his dead wife to fully answer the invitation she practically hired sky writers to spell out above his cabin. But in last week’s episode Lizzie paid him a late-night visit and found Vic bunking down at Walt’s place, hiding from her stalker, and automatically concluded there was something going on between the two of them; although she sounds as crazy as Charles Dutton, the show itself seems to think she was onto something.
For those of us who enjoy Longmire, it’s frustrating to know we have to wait another year to find out if the show is on a downward slide or if it will return to generate many more episodes as good as the best standalone episodes of its first two seasons. With any luck, it’ll spend its next season première writing itself out of the ditch it got into with its latest season finale. It used to work on The O.C.