Longmire is the kind of TV show that television used to be full of. The eponymous protagonist with a tough past and a ready quip, talking to people, unraveling a mystery and then riding off into the sunset. It’s a type of television that is almost as endangered as the Western and Longmire is both.
Longmire will be compared to Justified, but it doesn’t have much in common with Justified’s hipster frontier. It’s not knowing or self-aware. It isn’t aimed at viewers who want a postmodern soap opera, a True Blood, Game of Thrones, Sopranos or Justified, that is far enough away from Days of Our Lives to make them feel clever for watching it. It’s just a good old-fashioned sheriff cop show. And it’s a good 40 minutes of television that reminds you that the old stuff works.
The cast isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough to it. The West fills out the landscape against which every great detective show takes place, whether it’s New York City or Hawaii or Singapore. And the stories take, what is obviously a series of mystery novels, and condense them into something that plays on TV for 40 minutes or less.
There’s Sheriff Longmire, the beleaguered lawman mourning his wife and fighting off a younger rival. Solving crimes by noticing things, instead of by calling in lab techs. There’s Katee Sackhoff’s tolerable Vic, as a homicide detective not working in a small country, who fills out the usual sidekick role. But mostly there’s a wide frontier full of cowboy chic from Indian police to mounted elk heads, old wood and antique guns.
The pilot isn’t anything you haven’t seen hundreds of variations on. The mysterious murder victim whose life unrolls the secrets that led to his death. A young girl forced into prostitution. A setup and a gunfight. It’s everything you’ve seen in Hawaii 5-0, Vega$, The Fall Guy, McCloud and a hundred other TV shows. But it’s rendered clean and fresh. It’s not original and it doesn’t quite feel new, but it feels open in a way that most television doesn’t anymore.
Longmire isn’t great television, but it’s good television. I don’t give good odds for its survival, because like Terriers, the authentic detective show doesn’t play on cable television anymore. A detective can be neurotic and weird, because cable is supposed to showcase screwed up people, but the story has to be there just as a soapy arc to showcase more weird allies and villains. It can’t be something as clean and succinct as Longmire.
And yet Longmire is the perfect antidote to the CSI’s, Law and Orders and NCIS’s that took over free television and the hipster soaps that are one shade away from fifty shades of grey. It’s television as it used to be and it still has appeal. That’s why Tom Selleck’s bland take on Jesse Stone has been a surprising success for CBS. USA has managed to make the occasional detective show work. FX blew it with Terriers. Maybe A&E can hit a home run with Longmire.