Reviewed by Nicole Pedersen
This Sunday, January 13, at nine pm CBS will close the books on one of its most revered television miniseries when Comanche Moon, the final installment in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove saga, finally sees its primetime debut.
In February 1989, CBS premiered what is arguably the most beloved miniseries of all time, the western epic Lonesome Dove. Based on Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Lonesome Dove became a surprise ratings and financial goldmine for CBS. The eight hour serial starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones aired at a time when most Americans were experiencing miniseries fatigue and concerned the exploits of two decidedly unglamorous, middle-aged cowboys. But with its nuanced script and remarkable cast, Lonesome Dove went on to become the television event of the year, airing an unprecedented three times and collecting numerous awards.
Naturally after such critical and popular success, CBS sought ways to expand the Lonesome Dove franchise. First up, in 1993, was an ill-received sequel written without Larry McMurtry entitled Return to Lonesome Dove. Probably realizing that resistance was futile, McMurtry began work on his own LD sequels that same year.
In this way fans of the original miniseries were sold on two short lived weekly television series in 1994 and 1995, followed by a miniseries sequel the Streets of Laredo and finally the 1997 prequel Dead Man’s Walk. 1997 was also the year that McMurtry published the final novel in the Lonesome Dove series, Comanche Moon.
Comanche Moon, when placed on the Lonesome Dove timeline, is actually the second book in the series, chronologically about ten years before LD itself. These are the glory days of Captains Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. Stationed in Austin, Texas before the Civil War, McCrae and Call are proud Texas Rangers, fighting Mexican horse thieves and the brutal Comanche Indians for control of the Texas border.
As a novel, Comanche Moon received the best reviews since the first edition of its progenitor was released in 1985; but having taken one bite too many from the fruit of Lonesome Dove, CBS waited to develop Comanche Moon as a miniseries.
Finally in late 2005 McMurtry was born again hot with his screenplay adaptation of the Annie Proulx story Brokeback Mountain; and when he and co-writer Diana Ossana won an Oscar for that film the following year, CBS decided to roll the dice on one last return to Lonesome Dove. With McMurtry and Ossana again partnered on the teleplay, Comanche Moon was poised to ride Brokeback Fever to a spot in the 2006/2007 television season. So what happened?
Of course I can only speculate, but if pressed I would have to say that somebody at CBS finally read the Comanche Moon script. Fans of Lonesome Dove occasionally forget that it was William D. Wittliff and not Larry McMurtry who wrote the teleplay for Lonesome Dove. It was McMurtry who wrote all the subsequent miniseries scripts: the ones that met with far less favorable reviews from critics and fans alike.
Lonesome Dove was remarkable for its realistic treatment of the mythic cowboy. In 1989 westerns were still regarded as a bit cheesy, but Wittliff’s adaptation, short on words but long on character development, helped break that perception and made way for “intelligent westerns” like Unforgiven.
By contrast, Comanche Moon too often feels like a throwback to the Technicolor western shams of the 1950’s. With a corny soundtrack by Lennie Niehaus punctuating hackneyed lines like “There are two kinds of men in this world, honey, the marrying kind and men like Gus,” Comanche Moon seems closer in spirit to Bonanza than to a compelling modern western like Deadwood.
Comanche Moon also does itself a disservice by too often drifting from the one element of Lonesome Dove that truly set it apart from other miniseries of its time: the unlikely friendship between Call and McCrae. The life-long bond between garrulous and ornery Gus McCrae (Steve Zahn) and the strait-laced, reserved Woodrow Call (Karl Urban) remains the glue that holds Comanche Moon together, but McMurtry and Ossana continually test that sealant by following tangential story-lines into narrative and emotional dead-ends.
I am a big Steve Zahn fan, so I found even the syrupy scenes between him and true love Clara (Linda Cardellini) watchable. Zahn actually performs a miniseries miracle by resurrecting the true spirit of the late Gus McCrae as immortalized by Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove. Karl Urban, on the other hand, plays Call like a cowboy version of his Eomer character from the LOTR trilogy; although to be fair he had an almost impossible task before him. Now the sixth man to reprise the role, Urban could not possibly best Tommy Lee Jones, the penultimate taciturn Texan.
Comanche Moon reunites Gus and Call with many of Lonesome Dove’s most memorable characters, including fan favorite Deets and a very young Newt. Other familiar faces include Pea Eye Parker and ‘ranger gone wild’ Jake Spoon. Aside from Adam Beach as the villainous Blue Duck, many of these inclusions, though patently designed to appease old Lonesome Dove fans, are given short shrift by the writers. This adventitious approach to characterization leads Comanche Moon to some inter-series continuity issues, obfuscating the beautiful simplicity of Lonesome Dove.
Gus and Call aside, it is a new character that saves Comanche Moon from becoming completely stale. The first episode of the six hour series introduces us to one of McMurtry’s most inspired creations in Captain Inish Scull, played to perfection by Val Kilmer. Captain Scull is a Boston-born, career military man obsessed with the art of combat and the sport of killing Comanches.
“Those torturing fiends are the best, most capable opponents I have ever
faced, and I mean to kill them to the last man.”
Val Kilmer has slowly developed into one of the best and most committed character actors of our time, and his depiction of the over the top Captain Scull gives a role that could have turned caricature both depth and an insane vitality. As Inez, Scull’s “southern slut” of a wife, Rachel Griffiths does the best with what McMurtry and Ossana have given her: basically Scarlet O’Hara on Spanish Fly. Unfortunately, scenes between Griffiths and Kilmer are brief and the compelling Sculls vanish almost entirely from the Comanche Moon landscape by episode three.
While top-billed Val Kilmer and Steve Zahn do their best to elevate Comanche Moon from the depths of the other mediocre entries in the Lonesome Dove saga, their efforts alone can not save this prequel from getting lost in a plot that veers from sentimental to down right dull at times.
CBS must have had similar feelings. After shelving Comanche Moon for over a year, the network finally scheduled the three part drama for a release over the New Year’s holiday; probably the least watched television week of the year. The writer’s strike has actually given Comanche Moon a rare opportunity to buck expectations and pull in solid ratings with its debut now scheduled for Sunday, January thirteenth. Whether CBS can hold audiences for parts two and three when Comanche goes up against American Idol on the fifteenth and sixteenth is debatable.
Nineteen years after its release, Lonesome Dove is still revered as the finest example of the art of the network miniseries. The projects that have followed it on CBS, including this week’s Comanche Moon… uh, not so much.
While Lonesome’s newest prequel may not be all that fans could hope for from author Larry McMurtry, what else are they gonna watch on Sunday night… not the Golden Globes, that’s for sure. At least by airing Comanche Moon CBS can finally let America’s beloved Lonesome Dove rest in peace. It can now remain safe and forever perfect on DVD and in re-runs, just as it should be.
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