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Monday, November 23, 2015

November 23, 2015: Cultural Thanks-givings: Longmire



[One of the best parts of being an AmericanStudier in 2015 is the abundance of impressive cultural works with which we’re surrounded. So for this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to give thanks for five great works and artists about which I haven’t had the chance to write in this space. Share your own cultural thanks in comments, please!]
On how a cultural work can be both entirely traditional and strikingly groundbreaking.
I’m very late to the game on the Western mystery drama Longmire—the TV show, based on the series of Wyoming-set mystery novels by Craig Johnson, has been airing since 2012; the first three seasons aired on A&E, while the recently released fourth and announced fifth seasons have shifted to Netflix—which is surprising because it’s right up my alley. I was raised on a steady diet of both mysteries and Westerns (literary, televised, and otherwise), and was a particular fan of Tony Hillerman’s Southwestern mystery novels that thoroughly combined the two genres; similarly, Longmire uses to perfection so many traditional tropes from both genres that it seems at times created in a laboratory to please this AmericanStudier. Even those aspects that might seem like limitations in this era of innovative television—such as the fact that each episode’s mystery is wrapped up neatly by the time the hour is done—are done so well that they feel more like very traditional strengths.
I say all that partly to highlight why I find this show so naturally enjoyable, but also partly to make clear the strikingness of this next idea: Longmire is also, in its depictions of Native Americans, one of the most groundbreaking TV shows I’ve ever seen. There have of course been Native American characters on television shows for decades, and some, such as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto, were vital parts of nearly every episode and plotline. While Sheriff Walt Longmire’s lifelong, Cheyenne best friend Henry (played with dry wit and a great deal of comlex depth by the always wonderful Lou Diamond Phillips) is far more of a three-dimensional human than Tonto ever was, so much so that at times he feels like a main character right alongside Walt, that’s not the main difference on which I’m focused here. Instead, I’m thinking about just how many episodes and mysteries focus specifically on the Cheyenne community (on and off the reservation), and how many other episodes likewise feature Cheyenne characters and stories in significant roles. Longmire works to depict many different sides of this 21st century Wyoming world, but none are more consistently central to that world than its Native American communities and issues.
There’s certainly no reason why a show can’t be entirely traditional in some key ways and impressively groundbreaking in others. Indeed, that combination could be seen as a goal: luring in non-native American viewers with the familiar pleasures of genres like the mystery and the Western, and then hitting them with a healthy dose of Native American community and history when they least expect it. Yet at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if Longmire’s status as a less overtly innovative (and thus perhaps to many current viewers less interesting) TV show, particularly when compared to so many of the prestige dramas of the last couple decades, has kept it from getting the attention it deserves when it comes to this key and under-represented American issue. If so, that’s a serious shame—partly because a show doesn’t have to be something entirely new under the sun to be worth our time; and partly and most importantly because in its depictions of Native American characters and communities, Longmire can and does stand alongside The Wire, Treme, and any other contemporary classic that has engaged with racial and cultural issues.
Next cultural thanks-giving tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Cultural thanks-givings you’d share?

PPS. In the first version of this post, I called the upcoming fifth season the show's final one. But as none other than Lou Diamond Phillips (!) Tweeted, that's not necessarily the case--so let's all watch that season and make sure the show continues!

2 comments:

  1. I don't know about entirely new under the sun, or even if that's a valid criteria, or what it really means. But I'd like to add this to your good observations about Longmire: Longmire is unafraid to be earnest; it's unafraid to have actual heroes, as opposed to the anti-heroes that populate the so-called prestige shows (as great as they are). It's not that it doesn't depict real tragedy, heck no. But it does not get mired in the kind of cynical ironic self-consciously sophisticated artful posturing that many of the legitimately highly praised current and recent critically acclaimed shows do. And that is incredibly refreshing! It's a thrill for me. It's a thrill that it does all this without getting stuck in cliches or safe formulas. There are traditional elements, obviously. But traditional doesn't mean tired or boring. That they do this AND depict the reality of the Cheyenne people with such phenomenal complexity, gives Longmire something that I've never television begin to approach.

    For me, tho, the simple fact that the namesake of the show has been in grief over the loss of his wife for YEARS, not the usual DAYS we see depicted in movies/tv -- the fact that they were unafraid to show us what REAL grief looks like, that won me over practically by itself. For me, that was a sign that this was a show that would not shy away from the heart and the kinds of love relationships that many writers seem to think are not interesting.

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  2. Thanks so much for the comment and good thoughts, Nomi! I very much agree and appreciate your adding these elements in the conversation.

    Ben

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