Judge Clark Douglas is the weak, chatty type.
Solving the big crimes of Wyoming's "Big Sky" country.
"You haven't exactly been on top of things lately."
Facts of the Case
Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor, The Matrix) is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. He's a quiet, taciturn man still attempting to come to terms with the recent death of his wife, and his assorted employees worry that his grief is affecting his ability to do his job. The rural Wyoming territory Longmire inhabits seems peaceful at a glance, but there are all kinds of crimes that need to be dealt with. As the gruff lawman deals with a series of new cases, he also works on his relationships with his daughter (Cassidy Freeman, Smallville), his most loyal deputy (Katee Sackhoff, Battlestar Galactica) and his best friend (Lou Diamond Phillips, La Bamba).
Once upon a time, westerns dominated the small screen. At certain points in the early days of television, there were dozens of westerns airing each season. These days, the dominant genre is the crime procedural, as one determined protagonist after another works to solve rapes, murders and kidnappings on a weekly basis. A&E's Longmire makes an attempt to straddle both genres; it's a show that looks and sounds like a western, but adopts a "crime-of-the-week" format that makes it feel very much like CSI: Wyoming. The show's most obvious inspiration is the superb FX drama Justified, another crime drama in a cowboy hat. Unfortunately, the comparisons are only superficial: Justified is a rich, playful, gripping series that embraces complex long-form storytelling, while Longmire is just another run-of-the-mill formulaic mystery machine.
In no time at all, the series runs into a predictable problem: it's located in the middle of nowhere, but the format of the show demands that some horrific new crime be offered each week. The first episode opens in intriguing fashion: a sheep has been shot, and Longmire has been asked to investigate. Now this could really be something—a show that focuses on the sort of little, less-than-dramatic cases that many members of law enforcement in less populated areas are forced to deal with. "Okay," I thought, "this could actually turn out to be a rather distinctive effort." Alas, within a few minutes, Longmire comes across a dead human and starts conducting a more ratings-friendly investigation.
There's nothing wrong with the crime procedural format; if it's done well it can offer an ideal way to kill an hour or two. Even so, there are an awful lot of them available these days, and Longmire never makes a compelling argument for why it should be your murder-of-the-week fix. The mysteries are never really surprising or involving, the characters are never really given an opportunity to evolve into something more than their press kit descriptions and the northwestern atmosphere isn't even that involving. The frustrating thing is that there's plenty of fertile material to be mined from the premise, it's just that the showrunners have no interest in actually exploring that territory. A handful of scenes throughout the season touch briefly on life for Native Americans living in the modern world, which is an underexamined subject in pop culture. Time and time again, the show pushes its unique elements aside and tries its best to mimic the patterns of other popular programs.
It's also frustrating to see a more-than-capable cast wasted on material like this. Katee Sackhoff's portrait of Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica was magnificent, a memorable demonstration that she was an actress capable of handling challenging, complex roles. Here, she's given almost nothing to do, standing around and fretfully wondering whether Longmire is going to make it through his latest challenge. Lou Diamond Phillips does his best to make his "mystical Native American best friend" character an interesting, down-to-earth figure, but he's much better than the part itself. The only memorable thing about the character played by Bailey Chase (Saving Grace) is that his name is Branch. Well, that and the fact that he's having an affair with Longmire's daughter—one of the season's few multi-episode plot strands and one of its most tedious elements. Finally, there's Robert Taylor himself. He's a gruff, upstanding protagonist in Dennis Quaid/Harrison Ford mode, but we never really see beneath the surface. Taylor can command a scene when the situation demands it, but the character ultimately feels more like a type than an individual.
Longmire: The Complete First Season has received a respectable standard-def presentation, though I'm sure its snow-covered setting would look better in 1080p. It's more or less what you'd expect a modern TV-on-DVD release to be, with sturdy detail throughout. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is decent as well, offering the dialogue and sound design with clarity. Supplements are limited to a pair of featurettes: "The Camera's Eye: Realizing the World of Longmire" and "Longmire Justice: Exploring the Cowboy Detective."
In the right hands, Longmire could have been something special; a unique hour of high-quality scripted television in the midst of A&E's reality-dominated lineup. Alas, the end result feels more like a middling CBS show. A shame.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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