Longmire debuts tonight on A&E at 10 p.m. Eastern.
I love watching pilots. I love beginnings. The first episode of any series is always a unique event. Even shows with a strong artistic vision tend to adjust and develop as they go on, and while these adjustments are almost always for the better, there’s something fascinating in seeing concepts in their primal state. You watch a pilot, a good pilot, and you walk away with an expectation of what comes next; when the episode does its job, you get so caught up in wondering where things will go, and who might be hiding what, that you have to come back next week to see if you’re right. At least, that’s how it works for me. It doesn’t matter how close my prediction is to reality. (And I’m usually terrible at this.) A pilot makes a promise to the viewer. It doesn’t swear everything set up in the first hour will pay off down the line, nor does it guarantee that the cast you’re watching now will be the cast that comes back next week. It just says, “This is going to be worth your time.” That’s all a pilot needs to do: find some reason to be worth your time. If it succeeds, it’ll have the necessary credit with the viewer to start improving other areas. If it fails, well, nothing else matters.
Longmire’s first episode succeeds. The story of a Wyoming sheriff struggling to cope with grief over his wife’s death doesn’t break any new ground, but it hits the right notes to grab the viewer’s interest. There are compelling characters, lots of potentially interesting relationships, and a terrific sense of place. Most importantly, this first hour feels completely formed—solid all the way through. Which isn’t to say it’s perfect, or that there aren’t weak spots (the central mystery starts off as intriguing, but loses steam), or even that everything in the episode is set in stone and won’t be developing and evolving in the weeks to come. But form, or solidity, is important in and of itself. This is an episode that has a perspective to it, that isn’t just fumbling through a laundry list of cliches in order to distract us between commercial breaks. It’s working in an established genre—gruff lawman bringing justice amid colorful characters—and the genre, and the structure that comes with it, helps to make sure everything goes down easy. There are shows with grand designs and thematic ambition; then there are shows that just want to give us some good folks, emotions, and occasional glimpses of bad-assery. Right now, Longmire fits comfortably in the latter category.
The pilot’s two great strengths are its setting and its ensemble. The hook of the episode—Longmire investigates the death of a man we saw shot by a sniper in the cold open—is more functional than thrilling, but it helps to establish the show’s environment, and the various forces our protagonist will be facing off against in the weeks ahead. He’s got a loyal deputy in Vic, who awkwardly reminds him (and informs us) how she’s been on the job for six months after spending years working big city homicide. While I keep wishing Katee Sackhoff would get a show of her own, it’s great to have her on my TV again, and Vic is solid fit for her; in addition to being smart and likable, Sackhoff gets a chance to put her trademark smirk to good use, albeit in a far less self-loathing context than Battlestar Galactica. The only other deputy to get significant screentime in the pilot is Branch Connally (Bailey Chase), and he serves a different function. While Vic spends much of her time goading Longmire to action and providing friendly back-up, Branch is antagonistic; as the episode goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that he has designs on Longmire’s job, and is willing to get into some moral gray areas to help his chances. What’s great about this, in terms of long term storytelling, is that Branch isn’t the kind of bad guy you can lock away. He’s an irritant, and he’s underhanded, and he’s going to make our hero’s job more difficult, but he also serves as a valuable tool for the writers: a conflict that can’t be easily resolved.
Another situation rife with dramatic potential is the presence of an Indian reservation, and all the complicated politics and turmoil that reservation brings. The only Native American we see much of in the pilot is Henry (Lou Diamond Phillips), a bar-owner who’s friends with Longmire, and has certain connections to the seedier parts of town. (He also gets most of the pilot’s best lines.) There’s a strong sense of tensions between the authority Longmire represents, and the difficult negotiations required to sustain a positive relationship with the the reservation police. This is where the “setting” comes in; a show like this, which is almost certainly going to rely on a lot of the same murder/kidnapping/fraud crime cases that have been a staple of the police procedural for decades, needs to give a distinctive flavor to its routine. I’ve seen movies set in Wyoming, but I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a cop show set in the state, and the big open spaces and rural feel go a long way toward setting this series apart. (Sheep make everything better.) The potential for further complications with the reservation helps even more. All of this is vaguely reminiscent of Justified—an iconic hero enforcing law and order in the New Old West—but Longmire avoids more direct comparisons with its sense of isolation and older hero. The show isn’t as good out of the gate as Justified, but it doesn’t come across as a rehash. To use the word I keep coming back to, it’s solid. It inspires a certain degree of faith for the weeks to come.
Finally, there’s our hero, Walt Longmire, who holds all of this together while barely saying a word. Our introduction to the character has him at home, ignoring calls from Vic about a job, and making himself some morning coffee (using a French press, no less) with the energy of the deeply depressed. Walt’s a widower, and he’s just now coming back to the world after a year of mourning; the episode waits to give us much about the woman he lost. Hell, we still don’t have a clear picture of her by the end, but we get a very definite sense of who Longmire is.
Robert Taylor’s performance relies on a lot of stares and slow, considered dialogue. While he gets riled up a few times over the course of the hour, his big appeal is his silence. It’s hard to know where the depression leaves off and the patience begins, and Taylor does a great job of making a largely straightforward hero into something more complex. You see a guy in a cowboy hat sniffing a rifle and taking his time, you trust he knows what he’s doing. And yeah, Longmire is good at his job, but every so often, he shows just the slightest hint of desperation or fury, the passion of a man who doesn’t really know what his life means anymore, and is trying to hide just how much he’s figuring everything out as he goes. It’s a great balance: On the one side, the hero is stoic, with all the sort of western lore and skills you want in a TV sheriff (I won’t spoil it, but there’s a fun action scene in the climax that makes use of his cleverness); on the other side, he’s miserable and angry and has a hard time articulating that anger, and that makes him human. This is the sort of rough edge that could very well be sanded down as the show goes on, and you don’t have to squint too much to see this turning into an agreeable but formulaic and unambitious drama. Which is fine, if it happens. The actor is strong enough, and the world he inhabits rich enough, that everyone involved has earned some breathing room. The pilot ends on a note of hope, and with strong sense of purpose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that purpose develops in the weeks ahead.
- In case you’re wondering why I didn’t get into the plot more, this is a pre-air review. I'll pick things apart more next Sunday.
- I love Taylor’s voice. I keep wondering when he’s going to start narrating The Dukes Of Hazzard.