Longmire: The Best Crime Show You’re Not Watching
I already know what you’re thinking, so let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. You’re engaging in the same type of thinking that caused A&E to cancel Longmire after its third season despite the fact that it was the highest-rated scripted series that network had ever aired. It’s the type of thinking that Netflix disagreed with when it struck a deal to produce the ten new episodes for its streaming service that premiered on Thursday, September 10, 2015. What mindset am I referring to? The idea that Longmire is your grandparents’ favorite TV show, that it’s not “edgy” enough for younger viewers. You think of Longmire the same way that you regard plastic-covered sofas and tapioca pudding. Let me assure you that you’re wrong. And here’s why you should be watching Longmire instead of the latest dating contest or talent show that claims to be someone’s idea of “reality”.
It’s a Perfect Balance of Stand Alone Stories and Longer Plot Arcs: Most crime procedurals (pick the Law & Order or CSI of your choosing) offer self-contained narratives. Tune in one week; tune out the next. It doesn’t matter because the three acts of the story fit neatly into 42 minutes every week. Other crime shows tackle a single crime or case that lasts a season or more (The Killing, Murder in the First). Some episodes offer explosive revelations while others just seem to tread water because we have to stretch the plot out to occupy 13 episodes.
Longmire is the perfect marriage of both of these approaches to serialized crime TV. A storyline may resolve itself in one episode, over the course of several episodes or become part of a multi-season mythology. Each piece of the narrative is given time to breathe without imposing some kind of artificial format on the unfolding drama. Season 1 leans a little heavily on the “one crime per episode” formula, but with each passing installment, Longmire finds its storytelling groove. The rewards for the committed viewer deepen with each season. The third episode of Season 4 satisfyingly put to rest a plot thread that began during the show’s first season. But nothing about the long-anticipated answers felt artificial or contrived. Storylines simply unfold in their own time.
The White Man Versus Native American Dynamics: Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) is the Sheriff of Absaroka County, the white law enforcement for the Wyoming towns adjacent to an Indian reservation. Officer Mathias is the law on the reservation. During one jurisdictional conflict after another, the two men need each other, but each has a healthy distrust of other. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of office politics.
Enter Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips). He is the bridge between the world of the white man and the culture and mores of the men, women and children living on the reservation. Henry is both Native American and a childhood friend of Walt. He understands the attitudes and beliefs of his people, but he knows from experience that Walt Longmire is an honorable man. Longmire avoids simplifying this culture clash. It’s not racism for the sake of racism. Both sides of the racial divide have ample evidence to support their beliefs and distrust.
From the rape of Native American women by white oil field workers to the ethical and economic ramifications of casinos on Indian reservations, Longmire tackles these issues head-on with no platitudes or easy solutions. Longmire also avoids some kind of Dances with Wolves White Man’s Guilt rationale for its racial politics. Jacob Nighthorse (A. Martinez) is a Native American entrepreneur who proves time and again that being Native American does not make you a candidate for sainthood and men in power will exploit the members of their own race in the name of financial gain. As a narrative element, Nighthorse helps Longmire avoid the “downtrodden Indian” stereotype that could easily turn the Native American characters into clichés.
It’s a Breath of Fresh Air: Literally. After countless crime shows shot on the mean streets of one urban American city or other, Longmire is set in the state of Wyoming. The characters are as likely to be on horseback as they are driving a car. Not only is it a visual feast (especially in Netflix’s Season 4), but the landscape plays into the unfolding narratives. In the best crime shows and novels, the setting becomes a character unto itself. Amazon’s Bosch is drenched in the gritty neon of Hollywood and Las Vegas. The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street used their urban sociology and the politics of Baltimore to create an environment as real as any front page news story. On the print side of the genre, the depiction of Boston found in the pages of novels by Robert Parker and Dennis Lehane is essential to the success and believability of those stories.
Longmire also makes convincing use of Native American lore and customs. The unique terrain and its inhabitants are part of the plot twists and solutions to the crimes. If you’re a savvy watcher of crime shows and have a tendency to beat your favorite fictional detectives to the finish line, then Longmire will throw you some twists and turns you’re not expecting. You simply don’t have the experience to see what’s coming next because you haven’t seen a show like this before. How many other crime shows offer this kind of setting? None. If you’ve read the novels of Tony Hillerman or C.J. Box, you may have a frame of reference for the world of Longmire. But, score one for author Craig Johnson and the Longmire screenwriters for giving us an unusual setting for familiar sins.
The Performances Are First Rate: The prosecutor. The detective. The coroner. The defense attorney. This is how viewers usually think of characters in prime time crime shows. They are typically labels, not people. Thanks to the amazing work of Robert Taylor, Katee Sackhoff, Lou Diamond Phillips, Bailey Chase, Gerald McRaney, Cassidy Freeman and Adam Bartley, every character in Longmire is a flesh-and-blood person. They may feel like labels (sheriff, local deputy, female deputy, Native American friend, sheriff’s daughter) at the outset of the series, but the perfect synergy of actor and screenwriter allows for these characters to grow and evolve with each passing episode. The writers perfectly navigate the tightrope between personal storylines and the “action” needed in every crime show. (I have a personal soft spot for Gerald McRaney as unscrupulous businessman Barlow Connally. His recent stints on House of Cards and Longmire prove that Major Dad is a major acting talent.)
Very few shows get better with each and every passing season. For all of its “zeitgeisty-ness”, the first season of The Sopranos is still its best. Of the five seasons of The Wire, most viewers consider Season Two or Three to be its high water mark. So, when Season 4 is without a doubt the best season of Longmire so far, that’s saying something. Here’s hoping Netflix has the wisdom to give us a fifth season. [All 43 episodes of Longmire are currently streaming on Netflix. Seasons 1 through 3 are also available on Blu-ray, DVD and through all the usual rental outlets.]