By Mike Roorda | TV | June 7, 2013 |
By Mike Roorda | TV | June 7, 2013 |
Not all television has to mean something, or speak to us in transformative tones that challenge the foundations we’ve laid in our lives. Sometimes there’s joy to be found in just sitting down, pouring a stiff one, and watching something play out more or less the way you expect and hope it will. There are nights where I want to spend time with “Hannibal” or Walter on “Breaking Bad.” Sometimes I want to be asked hard questions about Life, the nature of Evil and other Important Things. Others, I simply don’t have the gas in my tank to do the heavy lifting that’s required. It is for those nights, the “it’s been a long week and man do I hope I have whiskey at home” evenings, that we’ve invented what we call the procedural. A procedural, as the name suggests, is simply a show whose central purpose is to make entertainment of the day to day workings of a particular profession. It’s a drama about the procedure behind a certain career, and that career is almost always law enforcement. There’s a glut of choices when it comes to this kind of programming. From the “Law and Orders” to the “CSIs” and all their imitative iterations, procedurals are very much a mainstay for most of the major networks. Their popularity and continued success stems from the fact that they’re not particularly deep or evocative shows. They’re light viewing fare, something you could watch while visiting your Nana, and by and large nobody will be offended. Every so often something, maybe not compelling but, more engaging than the typical “CSI: New City” comes along. In a genre that’s a veritable wasteland for actors who only want to phone it in and cash a check, “Longmire” on A&E stands above the rest as something maybe not great, but definitely better than what you’d expect.
The production values on “Longmire” far outstrip that of the other genre competition. All of the CSI shows look like they’ve been lit by a traveling circus act. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been watching and while someone is being questioned the thing that I notice most is that the lights in the interrogation room are a nonsensical shade of pink, blue, green or some other color they don’t sell actual light bulbs in. It may make for a more visually appealing scene, but I highly doubt the lighting inside of a NYC interrogation room actually resembles a strip club as much as we’ve been lead to believe. Longmire doesn’t pull these visual stunts, or at least, they don’t pull them nearly as often. The entire thing is incredibly naturally lit. They mimic or use sunlight wherever possible, and muted, dim and neutral interior lamps are utilized otherwise. The shot composition on Longmire also outstrips its contemporaries. “Law and Order” tends to go for the utilitarian approach. Often the characters, Benson or Stabler or whomever, are the only interesting things in the frame. Longmire, on the other hand, makes ample use of vast outdoor scenery and empty space in frame in order to establish setting and set an appropriate tone. The show looks, and feels, much like a western. The location (New Mexico standing in for Wyoming) mirrors that sentiment and is a welcome change from the big city settings that most other procedurals adhere to. Open spaces and nature sub in for crowded streets and parks. The show isn’t doing much to break new ground in the genre, but they’re doing their damndest to look different and that’s something that I can appreciate.
The stories told on “Longmire” also tend to be threaded with more heart and flawed humanity than its competition attempts. They certainly aren’t approaching any sort of a grand overarching statement on how the world works and our place in it, but neither are they simply limiting themselves to “this guy killed that one, and after we solve why we should think about seeing each other naked.” So far they’ve done a great job with the story arch above the dead body of the week plots. Walt, the Sheriff played by Robert Taylor, is all whiskers, old leather and black coffee. An upright man who believes in the law and rigidly upholding it at all costs. His one moment of weakness occurred a few years back, and he’s forced to continue the deception in order to keep serving the community he loves. Justice was meted out for the right reasons, but in the wrong way. Internally flawed and broken, Walt wears wears his silent stoicism like a cloak, hiding the unrest rumbling beneath the surface. While I’ve been very impressed with the story so far, I am not yet convinced they can maintain it over the long haul. I’m sure CSI used to be a lot more compelling before the cast went through it’s 5th reshuffling and the plots began to shift from parody to farce. Longmire isn’t perfect, but currently I’d much rather watch Walt and his partner Vic solve crimes in rustic Wyoming than sit through another big city precinct scene.
If you put Robert Taylor and Dennis Quaid (who was the Sheriff on another procedural western, the now cancelled “Vegas”) in a room together I’d probably get their names mixed up over half of the time. The difference between them is, Taylor is convincingly grizzled and tired of all these youngsters and their sh*t, while Quaid looked like he was simply attempting to help his brother Randy pay some bills. I actually believe that Walt is a weary and increasingly aged man. He wears his struggles and loss in the lines on his face and the creases in the corners of his eyes. Taylor, while clearly the lead, is also the least known member of the cast. Katee Sackoff (former maybe angel and “Battlestar Galactica” space fighter pilot Starbuck) plays his partner from out of town. (Philly I think? I dunno why I think that. Maybe she mentioned a cheese steak once?) Lou Diamond Phillips plays his best friend Henry, an Indian living on the local reservation and tending bar. Both Phillips and Sackoff are serviceably convincing. Sackoff still overuses her exasperated look too often, but largely the two provide Taylor with enough to play off of and are a welcome reprieve to the “do they have a pretty face” method of casting other lesser procedural dramas tend to adhere to. (There’s no way in hell actual people working in actual crime labs look more like yoga instructors than scientists.) Did I mention Starbuck is in this one? I did? Also, she’s not an angel this time. So far.
I’m not suggesting that “Longmire” is a must see or a cultural touchstone. It isn’t. What it does it does well and that is, primarily, tell a decent story wrapped in believable characters placed in a unique setting. It’s the perfect low impact viewing called for by rainy afternoons or a crushing weekend hangover. You could probably take a light nap in the middle of an episode and still emerge on the other side knowing the broad episode beats and salient plot points. Its quieter, more deliberate pace is probably a knock against it for some. For me, the country drawl and dusty boots make it work. I’d highly recommend you give it a chance, and hell, if Nana’s over for coffee you should probably invite her to watch as well.