Screens We know drama (and this ain't it)

TNT brings the famous monotony of rolling prairie grass to the screen

How the West was dumb: TNT's mini-series Into the West achieves the unenviable feat of sucking the life from one of the most exciting eras in American history.

"It took him an hour-and-a-half to hack through the bone, but by that time Rachel had died."

Your gut reaction to that revelation, uttered by "Episode-1" narrator Jacob Wheeler, is a good indication whether you will find Into the West, the TNT network's six-episode drama that premieres this weekend, a gripping retelling of American history or a cure for that persistent insomnia.

How do you make a boring movie about Westward expansion? The American years between 1825 and 1890 not only were some of the most exciting that history has to offer - cultural and ideological conflict and warfare, technological innovation, the mass movement of populations - but also became the crucible in which a developing democracy's identity was forged: The U.S. would be a nation in which humanity's highest ideals (to date) for and estimation of the individual would constantly jostle for primacy with greed.

To spin this yarn, which encompasses the Gold Rush, the Oregon Trail, the completion of the continental railroad, and the Battle of Wounded Knee, TNT has amassed six directors, a multi-ethnic cast of hundreds, and enough livestock to repopulate North Dakota - all under the tutelage of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg. How exciting is that?

Judging by episodes 1 and 2, not very damn exciting at all. Watching Into the West is like taking your vitamins without water. TNT has produced a number of post-Manifest Destiny Western specials and they begin here with an admirable idea: to tell the story of the clash between Euro-American expansion and Native American culture with equal respect for the Native Americans' point of view and values. To do so, they enlisted a team of advisors that included a professor from Oglala Lakota College and George P. Horse Capture, senior counselor to the director and special assistant for cultural relations at the National Museum of the American Indian. Why then do the meticulously (and, I imagine, expensively) recreated scenes play so awkwardly? Even the actors who portray Lakota tribespeople don't seem to be entirely convinced of their own authenticity. Part of the fault lies with the filmmakers who decided that these scenes require more narration than the all-white scenes. The unintentional effect is to make the Native Americans seem childlike and deserving of patronization.

Excessive narration is the Achilles' heel of Into the West. The "Story Angles" sheet enclosed in the press kit helpfully suggests, "Into the West is not a 'Western,' but rather a story about the West." The plot takes two extended families, the pioneer Wheelers and the the Lakota Tribe, and intermarry them to make several points. But Into the West never rises to the level of story; it's a series of vignettes strung together with extraneous, clunky voiceover, the above example of which is not the most egregious by far. It's impossible to care about the characters any more than one cares about the "re-enactors" in those anesthetized public-television dramatizations - soap-operatic twists a la Ciderhouse Rules notwithstanding. There is so little suspense that when lovely Rachel Wheeler's leg is crushed by a runaway wagon, her abrupt death by gangrene and brute surgery is a foregone conclusion. TNT wants to have its pemmican and eat it, too. Imagine Ken Burns writing a Western telenovela and you get a sense of the scope of the problem. Is Into the West a docu-drama? Then, please, bring on the drama. Less digitized buffalo herds - more acting.

Underlying Into the West's irritating narration is an assumption even more deadly to compelling storytelling: The filmmakers have decided who the bad and good guys are. At the risk of comparing apples and oranges, let's consider Deadwood for a moment, the crass and thrilling HBO series based loosely on the historic South Dakota town and its many infamous inhabitants, circa 1879. As many an appreciative fan and critic has noticed, Deadwood's characters are morally complicated, if not downright ambiguous; they argue for their own worth through their actions. The viewer must decide how to interpret and judge them. When the Hearst agent with the Jack-the-Ripper complex swung from a balcony at the end of season two, it wasn't to appease the moralists in the audience (although we were certainly gratified). Next season, HBO executives willing, we'll find out whether he was a murder victim to protect his employer's reputation, or a suicide because he couldn't bear his surrogate father's rejection.

In place of such obscenely real moral conundrums, Into the West gives us brief speeches from lascivious frontiersmen hoping to snag some Indian action or a Native-American medicine man whose visions tell him that his people's Wheel of Life will be crushed by a wheel of steel. That's an allegory worth building an epic, circular story around, but what comes out of the studio's intestines instead is a big buffalo chip. It's not worthless, but there certainly are more pleasant ways to burn a few hours.

By Elaine Wolff

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