The rise of scripted dramas on cable and streaming coincided with the gradual extinction of a certain kind of movie that used to be a box office staple: the mid-budget film for and about grown-ups, unconnected to superheroes or other franchises, not designed to be sequelized, nor even necessarily as Oscar bait, but featuring mature storytelling, vivid characterization, and abundant rich parts for your favorite actors of a certain age. If you want to tell those kinds of stories now, as a filmmaker or an actor, you mostly have to go to TV to do it.
The catch, though, is that not every story lends itself well to a serialized TV format, nor do many of the movie veterans who have migrated to the smaller screen fully appreciate the benefits and challenges of this medium compared to the one they know so well. Sometimes you’ll get a dazzler like The Knick that takes advantage of elongated narratives that are possible on TV, but too often, we wind up with another example of the plague of “It’s a 13-hour movie”, where stories run much longer than they should just because they can, and without any real shape from episode to episode.
Netflix’s new Western limited series Godless, debuting tomorrow, falls into a kind of no man’s land, and not just because its primary setting is a frontier town populated almost entirely by women. Created and directed by screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Logan), it, on the one hand, has a sprawling cast of characters — played by an impressive cast that includes Jeff Daniels, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Sam Waterston, and Jack O’Connell — whose individual arcs would feel crowded and rushed in a feature film. On the other, even at seven episodes, the pacing can get sluggish both within each episode (all but two of them clock in at well over an hour) and across the whole saga. The good parts are worth sitting through the slow parts — particularly if, like me, you’re a sucker for the genre to begin with — but it feels less a giddy merger of what’s great about TV and movies than a reluctant alliance.
The title spins out of the theological rantings of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), who wears a preacher’s collar but is actually the leader of a huge outlaw gang that’s terrorized the southwestern territories for years. The story opens up in the aftermath of the gang’s worst crime yet, the details so monstrous that lawman John Cook (Waterston, sporting a truly epic mustache) becomes obsessed with getting justice on Frank. From there, the action pivots to La Belle, a town where nearly every able-bodied man perished in a mining disaster, leaving behind widows, children, and a handful of men who are lacking for one reason or another. Local sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) is suffering from a secret degenerative condition that his constituents have mistaken for cowardice, and deputy Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is barely old enough to shave; Bill’s sister Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) is better with a gun than either of them, and has taken to dressing in her late husband’s clothes to assert her independence in this strange place.
“I’m done with the notion that the bliss of me and my sisters has to be found with childbearing and caregiving,” Mary Agnes asserts, but many of her sisters miss the men more than she does. A group of townswomen are eager to sell the mine to a company back east, even at unfavorable terms, if it’ll mean a flood of new testosterone into La Belle. Community outcast Alice Fletcher (Dockery) is so desperate for her half-Paiute son Truckee (Samuel Marty) to have a male influence that she takes on the Griffin gang’s prodigal son Roy Goode (O’Connell) as a ranch hand, even after knowing of the many crimes he participated in with Frank before finding a conscience.
It’s a huge collection of characters, also including a smug journalist (Jeremy Bobb) who doesn’t mind helping the news along himself, even if people get hurt as a result; a mining company mercenary (Kim Coates) who may or may not have the town’s best interests at heart; and a community of former buffalo soldiers who are perhaps the most capable people in the whole saga, but are shunned by dint of their skin color. Godless is at times most appealing when it’s peeking into some obscure corner of the story, like a late focus on Martha Bischoff (Christiane Seidel), a mysterious German woman prone to wandering around town in the nude, who turns out to have hidden depths and capabilities by the end.
A version of the story that was just about La Belle, and how a town like this might function in a place and time so dominated by men, feels like it could easily fill more than the seven-plus hours Netflix has provided, maybe even as the basis for an ongoing series. But Scott Frank is primarily interested in the feud between Frank Griffin and Roy Goode, and in Roy’s redemption arc, both of which feel more suited to feature length. There’s a long section in the middle of the series where the gang is wandering around looking for Roy (while Bill and John Cook are each looking for the gang), and both Franks (creator and character) seem to be marking time, uncertain of what to do while they wait for battle. Things drag on (including a series of interlocking flashbacks about what brought Roy to this point in his life) so much that by the end, I was more invested in what would happen to the town than what would happen between Frank and Roy, even though Godless is structured to treat the latter as by far the more important point.
Fortunately, the acting is strong enough to keep things interesting, even with the usual Netflix drama pacing issues (which only a few shows like Stranger Things seem largely immune to). Daniels could easily ham it up as an unrepentantly self-righteous villain, but he underplays it so that you can see how Frank has convinced himself of the rightness of his cause and the unforgivable betrayal of Roy. Dockery is simply outstanding (and the Downton Abbey star has the most convincing American accent among the show’s handful of English actors) as a woman not interested in talking about her life’s many tragedies, even as she carries all of them on her face, Wever is convincingly badass, McNairy charmingly vulnerable (Bill is basically Gordon from Halt and Catch Fire with a badge and a six-shooter), O’Connell an effective strong but silent type.
Where Godless is most impressive is in how gosh darned pretty it looks. Scott Frank (who’s behind the camera for every installment) doesn’t have a ton of prior directing credits, and director of photography Steven Meizler’s primary experience in this role was on Starz’s very different The Girlfriend Experience, yet they team up to create a stunning series of Western tableuax, bright and clear in a way that makes the country surrounding the town both beautiful and foreboding. And the climactic battle in the streets of La Belle is a corker in how it’s shot and staged, particularly one piece of business that takes place on the roof of the local hotel.
Making everything look so good costs the kind of money that Scott Frank likely couldn’t have gotten to make Godless as a movie these days. TV now has a place for this kind of story, though, and the length allows him to dig deep into a lot of characters, and to at least hint at the complicated lives of many others. But even at slightly more than half the length of many Netflix dramas, Godless starts to overstay its welcome before that thrilling conclusion. There’s surely a happy medium between movie and TV season length — somewhere around four or five hours, maybe? — that someone is going to perfect and be widely imitated. Godless doesn’t quite find that happy middle, but the storytelling excesses created by this format make it more fun than the traditional movie version probably would have been.