Summer TV shows usually don’t get me very excited. Some of them are okay, some of them are great, and some of them just annoy me. If I’ve got nothing better to do, there are a few of those summer shows that I end up watching fairly regularly. That’s changed this year, mostly because of A&E and their addition Longmire.
I like westerns and have for a long time. I can remember watching Terence Hill movies when I was just a tiny little starry-eyed sprocket. I used to laugh at how lazy Trinity was and marvel at how adept he was at talking himself out of the trouble that he would get into. They Call Me Trinity was a perennial favorite around my house.
I’ve seen Clint Eastwood westerns and Charles Bronson westerns and, of course, Robert Redford westerns. All of the greats have graced the small screen at my house at one point or another. Admittedly, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly wasn’t really one of my favorite movies. I watched it, mostly because so many other movies parody it that it helps to have watched it so you know what’s actually going on. I ended up coming to the conclusion that I liked the parodies better. They were shorter.
Pinpointing the exact moment where I decided that I liked cowboys is difficult at best. The area where I grew up is saturated with Wild West folklore. Most of the major epicenters of the mythology of the West are within a day’s travel from where I lived. There are still major cattle ranching operations there, along with open grassland and fenced in pastures. People still ride horses and using them to work other livestock. When someone comes into the local bar or cafe wearing a cowboy hat and boots, it’s not an affectation, that’s just the way that the dress because it’s practical and that’s not just their work uniform, it’s the same thing that they wear everyday.
Consequently, I don’t have much tolerance for Polyester Cowboys. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Marty McFly being all “gussied up” as a Polyester Cowboy in Back to the Future. Since it’s meant to be comedic, I’m perfectly okay with it. My definition of a cowboy is someone who is tough and works hard, who has a deeper understanding of land and livestock than the average person, who doesn’t shy away from a challenge, and figures that pretty much all of the answers he needs are somewhere inside of himself. The life of a cowboy isn’t for sissies, that’s for sure.
Having seen real cowboys and comparing them to movie cowboys means that some movie cowboys end up being deemed less than acceptable. TV cowboys usually end up faring far worse in my estimations.
The fusion of science fiction, mystery, and western that was Wild Wild West in its original incarnation as a TV show still makes my Geeky heart beat just a little faster. Robert Conrad’s mode of dress may not have been perfect, but his attitude and his fighting style on the show were. He was tough, but fair, and whenever he found himself in over his head, he always tried to find a way to get himself out of the situation as quickly as he could. He wasn’t really a cowboy, though, because, first of all, he was a G-man in the show. There may have been an emphasis on truth and justice, but there was little to nothing about the value of a good horse and a decent piece of land.
Historical Westerns are the ones that usually trip my trigger, so to speak. One of my favorite movies to watch is Tombstone. Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday is sardonic and sarcastic and makes you understand why and how he ended up getting into gunfights. The quiet dignity of Sam Elliot portraying Virgil Earp is the epitome of the fabled gentleman cowboy. It’s a movie that primarily shows off setting and time period and costuming to great effect. It’s the first movie that I remember showing a much less polished and grubbier west. The streets are dusty and the buildings aren’t really created to be airtight. They built what they could with what they had and sometimes the results were shabby and sad-looking.
When the remake of 3:10 to Yuma starring Russel Crowe came out, I didn’t even hesitate about buying it on DVD. The movie has startling moments of violence that are nothing short of stomach-turning, but Crowe’s character is presented as a complex character. He’s a bad man, make no mistake about that, but he’s also not obviously evil to the point of caricature. He is a man who has done bad things but keeps his word to a small boy for reasons of his own. The twist at the end, of course, reveals that, while Crowe’s character held to the letter of the agreement, he’s certainly not holding to the spirit of it. There is no over and above mentality to the way he conducted his business.
The opportunity to present complex characters is part of what draws me to westerns. Rarely in modern westerns are characters clearly black or white. Not even in the western comedies.
Take Cowboy Way for example. Kiefer Sutherland plays Sonny, who is an honorable and upright cowboy. He’s supposed to be the embodiment of everything a woman is supposed to fantasize about finding in a perfect cowboy. His dedication to being upstanding and right, though, mostly makes him kind of annoying. He’s so set in his ways that I was rooting for him to get the cactus out of his boot and loosen up a little bit. Woody Harrelson plays Pepper. Pepper is obnoxious. There’s really no way to soften that description. He’s wild and feckless and isn’t possessed of much in the way of either social graces or morals. On the other hand, over the course of the movie, he proves that he really isn’t as much of an irresponsible idiot as he seems to be at first glance. I count it as a western, even though it takes place in New York, because the focus is on cowboys trying to rectify a situation to their satisfcation.
Westerns also aren’t confined to having to take themselves seriously. Look at the Young Guns movies. They’re pure western popcorn flick. It’s an action movie disguised as a western with horse chases instead of cars. The cast was young and even if most of them probably wouldn’t hold up to much scrutiny as working cowboys, they had the cowboy spirit down perfectly. It’s a fun movie to watch, even if the plot doesn’t always develop in the most linear or logical fashion. Westerns can have all the usual flaws that any movie can have and still be just as enjoyable as any other flick.
Lightning Jack is one of my favorite comedies . Paul Hogan plays Lightning Jack Kane, an outlaw who clearly revels in his outlaw status, even if he hasn’t really achieved enough status as an outlaw to warrant that pride. He ends up gaining a mute sidekick, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. who soon finds that Lightning Jack isn’t quite the ruthless outlaw he’s supposed to be. It’s a funny movie with some surprising turns that doesn’t treat any of the characters like they’re stupid.
It might seem from the movies listed in this particular column that the comedy western is a fairly recent invention. You’ve only got to check out Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Cat Ballou, My Name is Nobody and Cheyenne Social Club to see that westerns have a long tradition of poking fun at not only their own tropes but their nearly sacred archetypes. You’ll find movies that skewer the slick, fast talking con-man as easily as they send up the strong, silent type. Westerns are populated with tough guys and hussies with hearts of gold, but they’re played out with a near infinite amount of variety. I suspect this ability to laugh at themselves stems directly from spending so much time out in the desolate reaches of the back-end of civilization. You have to laugh at yourself because there really isn’t anything else to available to laugh at.
Even Rango, with its ugly little animated lizard took on the almost god-like specter of The Man With No Name. Few genres would be willing to accept anything that smacked of taking down such an intrinsic part of their culture. When people think of steely-eyed gunslingers with nerves of steel, one of the first images that comes to mind for the majority of them is Clint Eastwood stepping out into that dusty street wearing his hat and poncho. The people that I know who love westerns as much as I do found that part of Rango to be utterly hilarious.
Of course, this brings us back to Longmire. I watched the first episode out of curiosity. Seeing Lou Diamond Philips deciding to do a television series made me suspect that there must have been something extraordinary in the script. So, I decided to go ahead and give the thing a chance. It didn’t hurt that it was supposed to be set in Wyoming. If ever there was a state made for cowboys, it would have to be Wyoming. After all, they have a cowboy astride a bucking bronc as their state logo (unless you’re dealing with one of those lame weirdos that opts to pick the bison instead). It’s a place Americans are most likely and more than willing to associate with the Wild West still being alive and well.
I think the part of that first episode that really drew me in and made me decide that I liked both the tone of the show and its direction was the part where Longmire ends up wrecking his vehicle when he sees a billboard one of his underlings has used to advertise that he’s running for sheriff against Longmire. First of all, Longmire is driving an older, boxy SUV of the kind favored by the people who don’t always feel that you actually need a road to drive somewhere. It’s a smart choice for a vehicle when you’re dealing with adverse weather and road conditions, as well as traffic that can include anything from drunken pedestrians to endangered animals to farm equipment and long-haul trucks. Secondly, when he loses control of the vehicle, it’s because he skidded on a sand and gravel shoulder. This is the kind of thing that happens in real life. A moment of distraction can and does end up having immediate and drastic consequences.
Longmire is the kind of guy that doesn’t like cell phones very much. Even if he did, it wouldn’t be like they’d work very well there anyway. In between rugged terrain and fiercely independent land owners, getting cell phone towers installed and maintained is both tricky and rare. He doesn’t talk much, anyway. Instead, he just deals with what life hands him and does the best he can with it. When he is asked, later on, what happened to his vehicle (which has a side that is now bashed in, no longer has glass in most of the windows, and is missing a side mirror), he just makes an off-hand remark about it being in a little scrape and walks on as if nothing is amiss.
The people writing Longmire get it. This man talks like people that I know. He acts like people that I know. He sees a lot more crime happening around him than anyone I know, but that’s because he’s a fictional character in a crime show, so that’s pretty excusable. It’s just so nice to see some fiction with a ring of truth in it. Nobody is making fun of these people or treating them like stupid hicks, both of which happen far too often for my liking in a lot of entertainment. Instead, they’re really being treated like characters who matter and who can contribute to an engaging and satisfying story. Outside influences don’t need to be added just to get something to happen. Instead, the plot of the episodes occur locally because of local people, some of whom are engaged in shady things.
Longmire is a show that takes the best elements of westerns and makes them into a show that rises above just being a neat western and turns into a good show that’s going to hold my attention.