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'Into the West': Manifest Destiny on the Small Screen

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Fans of the Western, rejoice. The acclaimed HBO series "Deadwood" may have just ended its season, but now another offering from the genre is here to take its place. The TNT cable network will air a 12-hour saga called "Into the West." Here's DAY TO DAY TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

I gave up on the Western genre a long time ago, convinced it had exhausted itself, reworking the same cliches over and over. Then HBO's "Deadwood" came along, reimagining the Old West as a hotbed for outlaws who spewed profanities with Shakespearean eloquence. Now we have the cowboys and Indians of TNT's "Into the West." They're a less obscene lot, but I gave them a chance.

(Soundbite of chanting and drumming)

WALLENSTEIN: "Into the West" is the kind of TV they don't make any more. Its 12 hours are spread over six two-hour weekly installments. The project cost an estimated $100 million to produce and market, the kind of budget usually reserved for theatrical movies. A project this size and scope is really a throwback to the 1970s and '80s, when epics like "Roots" and "Lonesome Dove" commanded big audiences. If you don't mind that format, it could be worth your while.

The story tacks back and forth over the course of the 19th century between the intersecting lives of a Lakota medicine man named Loved By The Buffalo, who foresees his tribe's doomed destiny, and Jacob Wheeler, a Virginia wheel maker who is wooed out to California by tales of its great beauty.

(Soundbite of "Into the West")

Unidentified Man: You got mountains covered with snow in summer and forests that go on forever, rivers that you can't hardly see across. Sometimes you wait half a day for a buffalo herd to run past, big shaggy beasts three times a horse, horizon to horizon.

WALLENSTEIN: "Into the West" avoids the cliched conflict at the heart of way too many Westerns, the good, noble settlers vs. the evil, savage Native Americans. "Into the West" splits its narrative between the two peoples, recognizing that history is complicated. Neither side is good or bad, yet they are still very much on a collision course.

"Into the West's" fictional characters also have a knack for happening upon very real milestones of American history, from the building of the Transcontinental Railroad to the Gold Rush. They also interact with historical figures like Jedediah Smith, the legendary mountain man depicted here by actor Josh Brolin as kind of a rawhide renaissance man.

(Soundbite of "Into the West")

Mr. JOSH BROLIN: (As Jedediah Smith) The Lord fashioned us a little above the beasts and a little below the angels, but he gave us the choice and it's great, son. And some of these men, they come west to lose their souls. West is a place on the map, not a way to live. Don't forget that.

WALLENSTEIN: Truth be told, younger viewers with no appreciation for the Western might find their patience wearing thin. The ponderous pace it maintains over 12 hours left me feeling a little saddle-sore. But even the most jaded viewers will have to admire the superb production that captures the West in all its grandeur--and its history, with great attention to detail. With "Into the West," TNT has taken on an effort as vast and challenging as the old West itself.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at the Hollywood Reporter. The TNT miniseries "Into the West" begins tonight.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.