TNT--the network that has worked, seemingly single-handedly, to keep alive the name of Louis L'Amour--is still putting all of its basic cable muscle behind the Great American Western. This summer, the net has joined forces with Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks to create the 6-week maxi-series “Into the West.” This sprawling multigenerational Western seeks to chronicle nothing less than the entire history of the American West.
The series splits its time between the Native American peoples and the white explorers who sought to tame the lands west of the Mississippi during the 19th century. The story starts round about 1820 and concentrates on the life of one Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle), a dissatisfied Virginia wheelwright who sets out for the Pacific coast in the company of renowned mountain man Jedediah Smith. While Wheeler learns the harsh code of the West, a young Lakota medicine man, Loved by the Buffalo (Simon R. Baker), struggles to understand his people's place in this now changing world. By the end of the first two-hour episode, the lives of Jacob Wheeler and Loved by the Buffalo will be forever intertwined.
“Into the West” is a little slow on the giddyap. There's a lot of territory to cover here (literally), and the series has a tendency to leapfrog three- and four-year gaps during commercial breaks. The rather pedantic narration also undercuts the story's drama on occasion, reducing the narrative to a dry history lecture or (even worse) a fairy tale. Once characters start interacting and the generational stories start piling up (the series is dipping into the 1870s by the end), “Into the West” builds up an appropriately epic narrative. Nothing here is as gripping as HBO's gritty Old West series “Deadwood,” but “Into the West” offers more than enough to satisfy cowboy enthusiasts and history buffs.
Shot almost entirely on location in New Mexico, the series strains the state to its breaking point in terms of locations. Substituting for half the states in the Union, New Mexico shows off its best side. On occasion the budgetary limitations show through, with Virginia looking more or less like St. Louis, which looks more or less like California. Still, the cinematography is lovely, and there are several impressive sets.
The cast, spanning multiple generations of both the Wheeler family and the Lakota tribe, is well chosen. Among the big-name cast members are Josh Brolin, Skeet Ulrich, Keri Russell, Beau Bridges, Sean Astin, Graham Greene, Rachael Leigh Cook, Matthew Modine, Balthazar Getty, Gary Busey, Lance Henriksen, Irene Bedard, Tom Berenger, Keith Carradine and Judge Reinhold (well, they can't all be gold).
Each episode is, more or less, self contained. Still, characters and story threads reappear, giving the series a true sense of history. At 12 hours in length, “Into the West” requires a certain commitment from its viewers. Although, when you think about it, it's only half the commitment required by a single season of “24.” My advice? Saddle up and ride.
“Into the West” premieres Friday, June 10, at 6 p.m. on TNT.