Monday, October 2, 2017
October 2, 2017: LongmireStudying: Genre Plus
[Later this month, the sixth and final season of my favorite current TV show (and one of my all time-favs as well), Longmire, drops on Netflix. So this week, after a repeat of my first post on the show, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of Longmire’s many fascinating characters. Leading up to a special weekend post on Native American popular culture!]
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 fourth and fifth (and forthcoming, final sixth) 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 Longmire post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on Longmire, or other shows, you’d share?