I was aware of the existence of this ever since it aired decades ago. But I wasn’t really sure what it was or who was in it. (I thought it starred someone other than Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, like Sam Elliott or somebody. I was not super aware that it was a traditional western despite thinking Sam Elliott or someone like that was in it.) I don’t even remember how it ended up on my list, though I suspect I looked up a list of “major miniseries” or something like that and here we are.
I have watched a lot of westerns in my life, though far fewer in recent years. I was, for a while, a western connoisseur. And I have strong feelings about westerns. It’s hard for someone like me to fully understand the acclaim this miniseries generated though I think I have some idea why. By the ’80s, the western was mostly dead as a cultural phenomenon. There was the odd Clint Eastwood film (actually only one, Pale Rider) and the minor hit Silverado (also starring Danny Glover, just like this). And that’s about it. So an event miniseries that was a western likely felt unique and likely appealed to multiple generations who had grown up with westerns and missed them.
But the other reason I think this got so much acclaim is the cast:
- Robert Duvall was a major film star, though perhaps not quite as big a star in the ’80s as he was in the ’70s
- Tommy Lee Jones was not the star he would soon become in the ’90s but he had won an Emmy and had at least appeared in some big films
- Danny Glover was arguably a bigger movie star than either
- As was Diane Lane.
There are lots of other names in this cast but the only other one who was relatively big in film was Anjelica Huston, who was arguably famous as much for being part of the Huston dynasty. The point being, this was TV but with movie stars. And though that may feel like a weird distinction to anyone who has grown up with “peak TV” it was pretty rare in 1989 in the US. I think this cast plus the high production values overawed a lot of critics as much as the “Oh wow an event western” did.
I mention all of this because this is a pretty traditional western than adds very little, if anything, to the western as a genre. In its focus on two retired Texas Rangers, it’s a little less conventional than some westerns, except that gunfighters past their prime had become a fairly prominent theme in westerns back in the 1960s. There’s a slightly modern vibe to it that feels completely dated to the late ’80s even though they probably thought it was quite progressive. To wit: we learn that a black man is just as good as a white man, perhaps better. Aww. (There are some other minor morals that feel dated.) There are a few plot points and characterizations that feel unconventional for traditional westerns but the problem is that revisionist westerns had been made for decades already and this isn’t exploring any new territory. (The plot deviations from the conventional narrative involve pretty major spoilers.)
The casting is kind of mystifying too, given Forrest is playing someone who is supposed to be part indigenous and part Mexican, and the age differences between the major cast members are just bonkers. Look them up! They range from Lane at 24 to Duvall at 58. Lane is supposed to young and Duvall is supposed to be retired but others are supposed to be similar in age to Duvall and are absolutely not. Speaking of Lane and Duvall, that’s a relationship. I’m sure things were different in the 19th century but 34 years still feels like a lot.
The plot relies on numerous chance meetings that feel contrived. I’m not sure McMurtry fully appreciates how large this area is when you don’t have a car. Maybe that doesn’t feel fair, but every major character is constantly running into other major characters and without that I’m not sure how much of a plot there is. (Certainly there is no B story.) I’d care less about this if it was saying something new but it just feels like an old school western in new clothes more than it feels like a new spin on a classic genre.
But the production values are extremely high for a 1989 TV series. And, though I complained about the casting, the cast is obviously much better than your average 1989 TV series.