It’s good to see the A&E cable network getting back into the TV drama business. Justly praised in the early 2000s for offerings such as its excellent Nero Wolfe mystery series, A&E went all-in for reality programming around mid-decade, ceding the dramatic field to USA Network and TNT.
In the past couple of years, however, A&E has dipped a toe back in the water, and has done very well with it. The mystery series The Glades is very solid, with excellent performances from the regular cast, good mysteries, an appealing locale, and often unusual and interesting subject matter in the individual episodes. The Glades is by no means immune to TV crime-drama cliches, but the personable lead character (played by Matt Passmore) has helped keep the show quite enjoyable. The show avoids preachiness and political messaging, which I appreciate. Its third season began last night with an episode about alleged UFO abductions.
A&E has also produced a couple of seasons of Breakout Kings, a show about a team of prison-escape experts who catch—you guessed it—escapees. Like The Glades and Nero Wolfe, it mixes a little humor into entertaining story lines that have a little ambition but not too much, while refraining from talking down to their audience through politicized story lines and pompous character soliloquies.
As such, the A&E drama series tend to occupy a middle ground between the sometimes clunky earnestness of TNT and the occasionally excessive gimmickyness of USA Network’s entertaining shows. It’s a good place to be.
A new addition to the network’s lineup is Longmire, which premiered last night. Set in Wyoming and based on the novels by Craig Johnson, the crime drama follows County Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) as he solves murder mysteries in the wilds of Wyoming. Bowing to the cliche that all TV crime drama heroes must have some emotional baggage to drag around, Longmire is just getting back into the swing of things at the Sheriff’s office after an unproductive year of mourning the death of his wife. He also has a poor relationship with his grown daughter. In addition, one of his deputies, Branch Connolly (Bailey Chase), has decided to run against Longmire in the upcoming elections, and his intimate knowledge of the sheriff’s poor performance in the past year will make the election a tough battle indeed.
On the plus side, Longmire has some interesting mysteries to keep him occupied. In last night’s episode, the series pilot, the middle-aged sheriff has to figure out who shot a stranger from outside the county with an unusual type of rifle. The story moves along nicely in uncovering the man’s reasons for being in the deserted field where he was shot, while disclosing the seamier side of life out in the Mountain West, as native Americans, prostitution, and out-of-wedlock children become central to the story.
The native American angle is reminiscent of the splendid series of crime novels by the late Tony Hillerman, and the central character’s stolid attitude, essential loneliness, and tendency to be bemused by politics resemble the Jesse Stone novels of Robert B. Parker. The combination of elements is appealing, however, and interesting enough to suggest that the conceit can work as a series.
In addition, the cast seems likely to repay a weekly visit. Taylor does a good job of not playing the title character too lugubriously. (He’s an Australian, by the way, which may explain why the Screen Actors Guild allows him to use the same name as the fine American MGM star of the 1930-’60s.) Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica, 24) has a strong presence as Deputy Victoria “Vic” Moretti, who has recently moved to Wyoming after serving five years as a homicide detective in Philadelphia. No doubt in the course of things we will find out that there were suitably dramatic (and possibly melodramatic) reasons for her departure from the City of Brotherly Love. As the villain, Chase makes a smart choice in underplaying his character’s deviousness—at least in the pilot episode.
All in all, then, Longmire appears to be a good addition to A&E’s slowly growing block of drama programs. Perhaps success with the show will encourage the network to move ahead with more drama programming.