TV Review: History’s ‘Hatfields & McCoys’

05.28.12 6 years ago 22 Comments


The theory at work in History’s three-night, six-hour (including commercials) “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries is a simple one: Roughly 130-ish years after its bloody roots, most (many? [some?]) Americas are aware that the Hatfield and McCoy families had a long-running feud, but they know nothing at all about the nature and the depths of said feud. 
What results is a lengthy litany of grievances and miscommunications that led to a series of deaths and placed the two clans and their names forever in our cultural lexicon. 
Produced by Leslie Greif, directed by Kevin Reynolds and written by Ted Mann, “Hatfields & McCoys” is an epic endeavor that manages to be exactly the wrong length for its intentions, which are simultaneously expansive, but limited.
As a point-by-point anatomy of a tragedy, “Hatfields & McCoys” barely makes it past its first night before the repeating cycles of violence become monotonous, a regrettable series of actions perpetrated with vengeful sameness by scruffy hill-dwellers who blend into a bearded mass in no time.  Wave after wave of “Then, just when things could have died down, this person stubbornly made things worse and additional chaos ensued” events crash down and at least for a while, all sense of dramatic escalation is lost. [Things go appealingly bonkers on the third night, but nearly all of the second night is half-baked romance and other filler.]
With its current duration, though, “Hatfields & McCoys” comes across as way more superficial than it should. The question of why, in 2012, this story requires six hours of primetime real estate is never fully answered. It’s a laundry list of unhappy occurence unbound by a grander sense of purpose. If I’m sitting through that much programming, I either need to be consistently entertained throughout or I need to be left with some sort of compelling takeaway. “Hatfields & McCoys” falters in the former and strikes out on the latter.
While technically solid, studded with good performances and, as I mentioned, satisfyingly fun in its last segment, “Hatfields & McCoys” is too repetitive and too hollow to fully justify itself. It’s “Game of Hillbilly Thrones” only with much lower stakes, which is odd what with it being real and all.
The miniseries has been smartly programmed for the end of Memorial Day weekend when scripted competition is sparse. In that context, I can give it a slim recommendation if the subject matter intrigues you. If you set your expectations low, it’s an OK diversion, but who sets their standards low when six hours are at stake? [Other than professional TV critics, I mean…]
More after the break…
“Hatfields & McCoy” brings out its big guns in a hurry. We start in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War, with Devil Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) fighting for the same time. They save each other’s lives on various occasions and darned if they aren’t right chummy. Then, however, one of the men prioritizes his family over continuing with the fight and this semi-justified desertion plants a seed of bad feelings. 
After a couple more minor instigations, we leap forward to 1878, when a conflict over possibly purloined pork is kinda the spark that sets the Hatfield & McCoy fire ablaze. And really, things just go from there. Over the next few hours, Hatfields and McCoys aplenty will die, though mostly not the ones played by the actors you recognize, because this is History Channel and nobody’s doing this miniseries for the glory of the cameo.
We have our two patriarchs in Devil Anse and Randall. 
Costner provides admirable gravitas, as well as the cultural memory that comes from his long relationship with the genre. Because of historically factual necessity, Devil Anse’s reaction to the feud is basically gradually increased weariness, which Costner plays well, but that makes for a dramatic black hole surrounding one of the project’s A-listers. He’s good enough, but I challenge you to watch “Hatfields & McCoys” and identify Costner’s second facial expression after “salt-of-the-Earth concern.” [Caution to future parents: Naming your son “Devil Anse” is as sure a guarantee that he’ll be involved in a blood feud as naming your daughter “Champagne” guarantees mid-billing at an airport-adjacent strip club.]
In contrast, Paxton, as Randall, gets to be a good deal more animated. Of course, back in the day, when Paxton was prone to being animated, he was generally a hammy part of ensembles and he didn’t become a TV star until he discovered the benefits of being laconic. He really lets loose in that last hour and there were laughs that I’m sure probably weren’t intended. 
I’m not sure why when Paxton goes over-the-top, I view it as a misgauged performance choice and when Tom Berenger goes over-the-top I believe it to be intentional and fabulously fun to watch, but that’s my double standard and I can live with it. Berenger is playing Devil Anse’s uncle Jim Vance, the loose cannon responsible for preventing reconciliation at several turns. It’s a larger-than-life character, but you have to wait til the third night for there to be a payoff for Berenger’s presence. When it comes, it’s worth it. 
My favorite performance among the older generation comes from Powers Boothe, playing Devil Anse’s older brother, a judge who tries to keep the conflict under control but — spoiler alert — fails. Boothe is so frequently typecast as villains — largely because he’s a spectacular bad guy — but seeing him as a voice of reason is surprisingly pleasant.
Among the younger generations, there’s a lot of blending. Once you’ve seen one long-haired Hatfield or McCoy with a scraggly beard, you’ve pretty much seen them all. The standouts — i.e. I took the time to learn their names and was consistently able to identify them — are the excellent Noel Fisher as the simple-minded Cotton Top and Matt Barr as The Only Hatfield or McCoy to Discover Personal Grooming. 
There are no memorable McCoy men, but there are women, with Jena Malone not getting enough to do as the sexually forward, troublemaking Nancy and Lindsay Pulsipher, whose Randall’s daughter Roseanna, whose Romeo & Juliet-style love affair with Barr’s Johnse takes up way, way, way too much time bridging the first and second episodes. Seriously, there’s a pretty solid Western a-brewin’ and then it becomes the least hygienic CW soap ever. Other than Barr, these people are all in need of soap and water, though at least Pulsipher isn’t asked to be a were-panther again.
It’s not a surprise that Kevin Reynolds’ talents lie much more in the feuding and much less in the loving. Remember the love scenes between Costner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in “Prince of Thieves”? Or the love scenes between Costner and Jeanne Tripplehorn in “Waterworld”? Or the entirety of “Tristan + Isolde”? It’s just not what he does well. On the other hand, the fisticuffs and skirmishes are well stages and I particularly appreciated the period accuracy involving both the challenges of hitting anything with 19th Century firearms, as well as the difficulties of killing somebody straight-away with those firearms. 
Shot largely with the mountains of Romania subbing in for West Virginia and Kentucky hill country, “Hatfields & McCoys” delivers on location-based scope. There’s a clear portrait of being transported back to a different era. However, there are weird limitations in depicting the inhabited parts of the wilderness. The towns are limited to a building or two and group scenes all feel sparsely populated. [I acknowledge that some of that is intentional and there’s amusement to seeing both families attending the same hootenannies and BBQs, without a simple neutral party in sight.]
While structurally sound, Ted Mann’s script lacks the verbosity and filth and, unfortunately, subtext that he brought (with a healthy assist from David Milch) to “Deadwood.” The frequency with which you see “Hatfields & McCoys” move in the direction of a genuine perspective only to tip-toe away is maddening. One toss-away scene suggests the role the media of the time played in the feud, but yellow journalism and the inception of tabloid culture aren’t on Mann’s mind. He can’t, in fact, find anything in the following century worth setting up or implying as a parallel to the feud. I can handle 150 minutes of “This was something isolated and bad that happened,” but at 280-plus minutes, I want a glimpse into the American mindset around the Hatfields and McCoys, rather than just a domino run of misery. 
Your appreciation for a domino run of misery will vary. “Hatfields & McCoys” is old-fashioned to its core and I have no doubt that it will play well to the “Why don’t they make ’em like the used to?” crowd that almost certainly makes up a big percentage of the History Channel audience. I think that will also play well to fans of Costner’s backward-looking body of work, though I’d insist that “Dances with Wolves” and “Open Range” and “Wyatt Earp” are all more introspective and revisionist works with a lot more to say.
“Hatfields & McCoys” airs on May 28, May 29 and May 30 at 9 p.m. on History.

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