CBS recently decided that its latest Jesse Stone movie with Tom Selleck would be the series’ last, because even though the films still pull in a healthy viewership total, the viewers are virtually all over 50, and therefore unfortunately viewed as worthless by the advertisers who pay the freight at CBS.
The math is a little different when you get to cable, though. History Channel has been crowing, with justification, about the huge ratings for its “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries, which debuted with close to 14 million viewers, but far more modest numbers among adults 18-49.
I doubt that A&E will get ratings comparable to either the Jesse Stone films or “Hatfields” for its new mystery series “Longmire” (Sunday at 10 p.m.), but it doesn’t need to in order to be a successful companion piece to “The Glades.” And Jesse Stone fans may find a lot that feels familiar, and appealing, in the new series.
“Longmire” is based on Craig Johnson’s series of mystery novels about small-town Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, played by Australian actor Robert Taylor. Like Jesse, Walt is a man out of sync with the 21st century – he refuses to get a cell phone, and he suggests a deputy brush up on his investigative technique by reading “The Hound of the Baskervilles” – and is hung up on the wife who is lost to him. With Jesse, it was divorce, where Walt’s wife has been dead a year, and in that time he’s let his attention to personal and professional detail fall apart.
When a fresh murder awakens Walt from his slumber and prompts him to drive five hours each way to notify the dead man’s widow, a deputy notes that Walt hasn’t done a notification in a while.
“Hasn’t done much in a while,” notes another, Branch (Bailey Chase), who is planning to run against Walt in the next election.
Though Walt ambles to his own drummer, and confesses to best friend Henry (Lou Diamond Phillips) that he fears he’s lost a step, his old-school skills haven’t all left him. And over the course of this one investigation, he starts to find his way back into the world, even if it’s a world that doesn’t always seem to understand an old cowboy like him.
Taylor’s a big guy whose approach to his fake American accent is a flat tone of voice that could come across as emotionless, but instead plays into the laconic style of the character. Walt’s not big on verbalizing – when a deputy asks what he’s doing as he stares at a crime scene, Walt replies, “Thinkin’. I do that sometimes before I talk.” – and Taylor’s delivery evokes a bit of the pre-“Fugitive” Tommy Lee Jones (i.e., before the world was allowed to know how funny he was).
It’s not a wildly original character, or performance, but it gets the job done in lean, efficient fashion. And it fits nicely in the rugged, wide-open terrain. “Longmire” uses locations in and around Santa Fe to stand in for Wyoming, and there’s a sense of place to the show that makes it feel unlike every other cop show on television.
And “Longmire” needs that sense of place, and a couple of lively supporting performances by Phillips and “Battlestar Galactica” vet Katee Sackhoff (as deputy Vic, a big-city transplant who doesn’t like the country, but respects Walt), to stand out from the dozens of other crime procedurals out there. The case that brings Walt back to life isn’t particularly interesting (or, for dramatic purposes, surprising), and the only reason it seems to have an affect on him at all is that it takes place around the anniversary of his wife’s passing.
I’d like to see the mysteries grow more engaging as the series moves along, but “Longmire” at least starts with a good foundation in Walt, his sidekicks, and the wide, open spaces they travel.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org