Longmire wraps up its first season run on A&E tomorrow night. When I first heard of this show, I thought it was a Justified rip-off, and I'm sure that the success of that FX network show had some bearing on the decision to make this into a series, but it does stand on its own two feet, even if it has--in my book--one major fatal flaw.
I had read one of Craig Johnson's Longmire books a few years back. It was the one where he went back east to Philadelphia to investigate an attack on his daughter, Cady (Kindness Goes Unpunished). I liked the characters and how Johnson dealt with them, but I found the book itself to be too long, like a great novel was there for the taking, if and only if someone had persuaded the author to be a little more lean with his writing. I never read another (there are, I believe, 8 in the series now), but when I heard a TV show was in the offing I was interested enough in the characters to give it a shot.
Walt Longmire is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, and he's coping with the death of his wife a year earlier. He's trying desperately to keep his life together with the help of his daughter and his staff. He's definitely old-school, refusing to use a cellphone, tooling around in his Jeep, wearing a cowboy hat and a leather coat. He's also no spring chicken, which makes this show pretty popular, I'd wager, with the Matlock crowd (the show is A&E's most watched original series ever, debuting with an audience of over 4 million).
The interesting thing about that Matlock reference is the star: Australian actor Robert Taylor plays Longmire and he's like a cross between Andy Griffith and Clint Eastwood: flinty, laconic, taciturn, but with that homespun charm that made Sheriff Andy so likable. Taylor is a real find (and a star in his native Australia), a real hero-type, and a man's man. Lou Diamond Phillips plays Henry Standing Bear, Walt's friend and a Cheyenne Indian who owns the local watering hole. Phillips has left behind his pseudo-Brat Pack days of the Young Guns era and has become a seasoned actor. His stoic, no contractions in his speech Standing Bear is serious, thoughtful, mysterious, and wry. Baily Chase plays Longmire's deputy, Branch Connally, who just happens to be running against Walt for the county sheriff job, along with the help of his father, played by the great Gerald McRaney (so memorable as George Hearst in Deadwood), who wants to see Longmire out of a job. Cassidy Freeman and Adam Bartley round out the cast as Longmire's lawyer daughter and another deputy, who they call The Ferg. Freeman is pretty great as Cady, the grown child trying to help her father put the death of his wife behind him (and who also had a passionate fling with Deputy Connally); Bartly is kind of comic relief and doesn't have a lot to do.
And then there's Katee Sackoff as Deputy Vic Moretti, a transplanted Philadelphian who is having problems adjusting to the ways of the West. And she's also that one major fatal flaw I mentioned in the first paragraph. Let me say I've never been a member of the cult of Katee, that fanboy tribe that worshipped her on Battlestar Galactica and made her into an such an "icon," that she appears as the woman of Howard Wolowitz's dreams on The Big Bang Theory. She sucked on 24 (I cheered when Jack Bauer killed her) and she pretty much sucks here, too, grimacing and smirking her way through every scene. In fact, that seems to be the extent of her acting ability. I dislike her so much in this show--which is at times fascinating and mostly well-written, plus beautifully photographed--that I'm conflicted as to whether or not I still want to watch it.
But Taylor's performance is the driving force here along with one marked similarity to Justified: The series plunges us into a world we could never imagine, seen mainly through the eyes of a modern day cowboy, who doesn't quite fit in to either that world or our own. In Justified, it's the Kentucky of moonshiners and drug dealers, most or them mired in poverty. Here it's a Cheyenne Indian reservation, where the law is a separate police force suspicious of outside cops like Longmire and the building of a new casino colors everyone's expectations of wealth. Both are fascinating worlds, well drawn and acted. That's what makes Longmire good--good, not great so far--along with Taylor's star-making performance. And that's what keeps me watching.