Somewhere in Hollywood accounting, a formula must exist for determining the success of shows based on what they cost to make versus what...
Somewhere in Hollywood accounting, a formula must exist for determining the success of shows based on what they cost to make versus what they cost to hype.
Take “Into the West,” airing from 8 to 10 tonight and subsequent Fridays on TNT. The 12-hour, six-part miniseries, which follows the pioneering Wheeler family and members of the Lakota tribe over seven decades, took $50 million to produce. That’s not all. TNT then spent another $50 million to market the series and ratchet up our expectations of a dazzling masterpiece.
The bottom line: Beware when promotion equals production. “Into the West” is a gorgeous, noble slog that unfavorably demonstrates the difference between high drama and high-minded drama.
Steven Spielberg, who served as executive producer for “Into the West,” is an expert in both. After earning a fortune with popular adventures, he turned to examining good, evil and cultural hostility in epic works like “Schindler’s List,” “Band of Brothers” and “Taken.”
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Even so, the apparent villain of “Into the West” comes as a bit of a surprise.
If you wonder how the series handles the tricky issue of honestly presenting the plight of Native Americans without altogether alienating the largely white audiences that will tune in, the answer is capitalism.
That’s right: TNT and DreamWorks SKG, a studio headed by three of the entertainment industry’s richest men, have created a Western in which the bogeyman is lust for profit.
The point here is not irony. Money was the driving force of Western settlement. HBO’s intelligently profane “Deadwood” riffs on the spectacle of 19th-century folks selling their bodies and souls for filthy lucre every week.
But “Into the West” has a sneakier way of fingering the bad guy, one designed not to upset the balance of a series determined to keep its main characters likable.
Instead of the Wheelers’ boldly representing a classic strain of American avariciousness, their desire for wealth is treated as a kind of random pestilence — a social disease that periodically ravages Native Americans and whites alike.
Accordingly, the series gets off to a soft-pedaled start. When we meet young Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle) in Episode 1, he’s portrayed as a restless dreamer seeking thrills that can’t be found in the little village of Wheelerton, Va., circa 1825.
Jacob runs away to find adventure with frontier man Jedediah Smith (Josh Brolin). He’s pursued by brothers Nathan (Alan Tudyk), who goes with him, and Jethro (Skeet Ulrich), who stays behind until eventually he, too, heeds the siren call of Westward-ho.
Meanwhile, a young Lakota brave (Simon R. Baker) has a terrible vision in which all the buffalo are gone and the Lakota are living in square houses.
After a breathtaking scene in which a buffalo hunt goes horribly awry and only he is spared, the brave is renamed Loved by the Buffalo. He becomes a periodically roaming medicine man just as Jacob becomes a restless wanderer. They are the philosophical seekers.
Loved by the Buffalo also has a sister named Thunder Heart Woman (Tonantzin Carmelo), who eventually marries two different Wheeler brothers. Their collective tales and progeny populate — some would say overpopulate — “Into the West.”
The series was beautifully photographed in New Mexico and Canada, and the action scenes are marvels of timing and coordination. Despite a different director and writers for each episode, the look, pacing and emphasis are remarkably consistent.
In addition to using mostly Native American actors to play the roles of Lakota, Mojave and other tribal people, “Into the West” hired Native American consultants for accuracy of language and customs.
These efforts pay off with a degree of detail that is unusual. It extends beyond correctly presented rituals to small, organic touches — expressions of humor, physical bearing, modes of interaction between the sexes.
Nevertheless, “Into the West” is unable is get us close to the characters, and that considerably detracts from its appeal.
I initially thought the problem was the series’ narration. While Jacob tells the Wheeler saga, exposing us to his inner feelings, the Lakota story is relayed in the distancing third person. (If oral tradition is so big, why did someone else do the voice-over?) But it proved just as difficult to become involved with the Wheeler clan.
By Episodes 2 and 3, I realized that the people of “Into the West” aren’t individuals; they’re archetypes. They’re in service to the plot and fleshed out only to project an attitude, illustrate a historical issue or provide some exposition.
The series’ effort to cover everything from the Gold Rush 49ers to Quantrill’s Raiders to Little Big Horn — and that’s just the first six hours — further reduces the dozens of characters to secondary consideration. Small wonder the acting is generally muted.
Maybe that’s why it was hard to give a rap when two Wheeler men meet an untimely fate in a freezing river at the height of the California gold rush; the scene seems forced and absurd. The writers of “Into the West” care more about drawing moral lessons to punish greed and reward spiritual growth than crafting believable psychology for their creations.
Some scenes are so tragic that they transcend the impersonal tone. In Episode 3, a confrontation between the Lakota tribe and U.S. soldiers triggered by the indifference of a lazy, drunken interpreter is absolutely heartbreaking.
When “Into the West” conjures up action that’s not big or historical, things can get decidedly soapy. The Wheeler men end up rescuing women more times than I can recall from the clutches or insults of crude cads in buckskin.
Perhaps that element was emphasized to appeal to a core TNT demographic: women 25 and older. According to a panel that previewed the series to television critics last January, TNT also hopes to attract Western and history buffs, mostly male.
I’m not so sure. A viewer requires a decent grasp of history to recognize certain events, because “Into the West” doesn’t do a great job at background explanation.
But history and Western buffs aren’t likely to learn something they didn’t already know unless some whopping revelations are ahead in Episodes 4 through 6, not yet available to review.
In fact, the chief novelty of “Into the West” is its own existence.
As the first major commercial miniseries to give equal time to the perspective of Native American, the program is commendable. As entertainment, it’s on par with summer school.
Note: “Into the West” is repeated numerous times this weekend following its 8 p.m. debut. For complete schedule information, see www.tnt.tv
Kay McFadden: firstname.lastname@example.org