Katee Sackhoff and Robert Taylor star in A&E's new series "Longmire." (MCT )
If the success of History's recent miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys" is any indication, it's still tough to beat a good tale from the frontier. Whether emanating from an iPhone or a 90-inch flat screen, there's something about hoofbeats stirring up mountainous mulch and men in big hats meting out justice that twangs the American heartstrings deep and true.
Though set in the modern west, A&E's new law enforcement drama "Longmire" hits many of the same notes. A place of flat plains edged with pine-crowded mountains, Absaroka County, Wyoming, still answers to its sheriff, one Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor). Where his forebears once spit tobacco, he picks up litter, but the watchful squint and laconic lyricism conspire to make him an American icon (never mind that Taylor is an Australian) and offer viewers a hero that should appeal equally to fans of Tom Selleck's Jesse Stone and Dennis Weaver's "McCloud."
It's a slow-moving show, to judge by the pilot; the camera, like the sheriff, takes pleasure in Big Sky country when it can and refuses to be rushed when surveying a crime scene or a witness. Fortunately, one of Longmire's deputies, Vic Moretti, is played to ponytailed perfection by Katee Sackhoff, which should bring the youngsters around for a look-see. We hear her before we see her, in a series of answering machine messages — Longmire carries no cellphone — as she tries to shake her boss out of bed and up the mountain where trouble is brewing among the sheep herds and hunters. Trouble that quickly becomes more serious than it first appears, involving a rogues gallery of local characters, including Longmire's best friend Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), the hatefully ambitious deputy Branch (Bailey Chase) and an ongoing turf war between Longmire and police officials of the local reservation.
The mystery in the pilot is mildly interesting but plot is clearly not the point here. Based on the novels by Craig Johnson and written by John Coveny, "Longmire" is an evocation of place and character, a reminder that not every crime is committed in a big city and not every police force is run by homicide detectives and/or special-interest consultants, be they novelists, psychics, forensic anthropologists or assorted geeks. Six months out of Philadelphia homicide Vic serves as the citified acolyte to Longmire's prairie prophet — the sheriff's first clue when he turns over the victim's body is that it belongs to someone he does not know, a rare thing in Absaroka County.
Where Longmire strides, Vic bounces, and though Sackhoff doesn't have quite enough to do in the pilot, the chemistry between the two will no doubt be the river running through the show. While anything can happen over time in a TV series, their relationship appears remarkably, and mercifully, free of sexual or even romantic tension, despite their being the two best-looking people in the county and probably the state. (No offense meant, citizens of Wyoming.)
The reasons Vic has ditched Philly for the Old West are not given in the pilot, which is promising for future episodes, and though she complains about the sheep and the snow and Longmire not respecting her talent, she seems happy enough to do her job and keep a sympathetic eye on her boss.
For Longmire is nursing that deep essential sorrow we too often demand of our heroes. His wife died the year before, and despite the pleas of his grown daughter Cady (Cassidy Freeman), he is loath to let her go.
How, and if, a man can heal his own heart is the question "Longmire" sets out to answer with steady tread and shoulders squared. It's an old-fashioned sort of show, working unapologetically toward wisdom rather than cleverness, attempting to depict its setting as neither romantic nor dismal, the local color rising as much from silence as words. No one banters in "Longmire"; they speak.
And when that doesn't work, they shoot.