There are few things more frustrating as a TV viewer than seeing a beloved actor or actress stuck in an unrewarding role. Most of us connect to the performers who bring our favorite characters to life — maybe not in the ‘shipper sense of connection, but it’s hard not to become emotionally invested in people you spend so many hours of your time watching. But when great shows end, the cast doesn’t disappear, or retire, or sit around waiting for a prequel series. They look for more work, and their fans follow, but the (largely imaginary) relationship is never really the same. At best, you get a new series that, while not capturing the magic of what came before, has its own merits. I’ll be surprised if Michael Emerson ever gets as great a part as Benjamin Linus on Lost again, but his time on Person Of Interest has been a lot of fun in its own right. But it doesn’t always work out that well. Terry O’Quinn was the best thing about 666 Park Avenue, but the show couldn’t live up to his efforts, and now he’s stuck in another cop drama. And at worst, you’ve got Katee Sackhoff, still powering through scripts that under-serve her talents. Her turn on 24 was disappointing, but at least she got to have some fun as a (spoiler!) villain. On Longmire, she’s stuck as the hero’s sidekick, worrying about him from afar while he goes around kicking ass.
Longmire enters its second season without any sign it’s learned from the mistakes of the past. The first episode’s storyline — a group of dangerous convicts escape while en route to federal prison, and Walt decides to go out into a blizzard to track them down — is solid enough, although it never gets very deep beyond the premise. Which is standard for the series, really. Walt has an uncomfortable conversation with a serial killer who murdered an Indian boy that Walt had promised to track down. Then the serial killer spearheads the escape, and much of the rest of the hour is given over to the build up to their final confrontation. The script tries to shortcut into an emotional connection between the two character: Walt is pissed off about the dead kid (who barely registers outside a few flashbacks/hallucinations), and the killer spouts off some vague cliches about prophecy and destiny and whatnot, but the character barely registers. The most interesting thing about him is that he murdered Native Americans to harvest their organs and sell them on the black market. That’s a frightening, and potentially dramatically rich, concept, but it plays here mostly like a slight touch of color to make the storyline specific to the show. If this was Criminal Minds, the killer would’ve been a pederast and very little would’ve changed.
Walt’s still as grumpy and uber-competent as ever. The first ten minutes or so can be seen as a series of scenes designed to have Longmire be right about everything, occasionally at the expense of Vic’s competence. If anything, he’s gotten brighter and she’s gotten a little bit dumber this time around, and it’s hilarious (in a bad way) to watch. The relationship plays out like some kind of middle-aged dad fantasy: a gruff, emotionally reserved older man earns the respect (and unspoken affection) of a young, beautiful woman by explaining to her how wrong she is about basically everything. (Maybe the best part is when Vic decides to open her door and shout at a nearby buffalo, because who would ever, ever do that?) The problem isn’t so much that Walt is good at his job, but that everyone else has to be a fuck-up in order to make him look better. Sackhoff does her best, but Vic doesn’t really make a lot of sense: She’s crazy emotional about Vic being missing, but also scared and vulnerable and weepy over everything. The intensity of her connection is all out of proportion to the situation.
It’s just too much, and it shows how little the writers understand Sackoff’s strengths. On Battlestar Galactica she made an impression by being both intensely passionate and a total badass — her walking open wound emotional status was part of what made her such a brilliant fighter. Here, her ability to convey intense angst is hamstrung by the character’s incompetence, turning the actress’ gift into a forced romantic trope; aw, she’s in wuv with her boss, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. The sad thing is, with any other actress in this role the character would be unmemorable but fine. With Sackhoff, it becomes this immensely frustrating adventure in cognitive dissonance, because the actress is selling a complexity the scripts refuse to deliver on.
But it’s not like she’s alone in that respect. Lou Diamond Phillips may not have the greatest range, but it looks like he’s still stuck in the role of mystic sidekick with just enough modernization to make it palatable. And as the title character, Robert Taylor is still managing, just barely, to hold things together. For all the show’s faults, there’s a compelling awkwardness to Longmire that keeps threatening to become something more; on the page, he’s just a laconic cowboy, but Taylor brings a kind of confused rage to just below the surface, suggesting an instability that could, if the writers ever learned use it, make for legitimately compelling television. Instead, it’s just a lot of doodles in the margins of a disappointingly bland text.
There are bits and pieces that set the show apart from the usual procedural. The setting remains as gorgeous as ever, even when we spend most of the hour in pitch darkness, and the politics of Longmire’s relationship with the Native American reservation, while only tangentially mentioned here, remain as potent. The cast is, on the whole, strong, and there’s potential for new kinds of mysteries and new kinds of characters. But given that Longmire is heading into its second season with little sign of change or substantial improvement, it’s hard to get excited about whatever comes next. Possibility exists, but odds are, it’s just going to be another summer of clumsy plotting and ill-served talent. Sackhoff deserves better. So do we.
- In case my defeatist attitude isn’t clue enough, we won’t be covering Longmire on a weekly basis like we did last year. If the show suddenly and substantially improves, this could change, but for right now, consider this an adios.