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Miniseries review: Comanche Moon (CBS)

Disparate Texas Rangers Woodrow Call (left) and Gus McCrae (right) flank the fractious Sculls in CBS' Comanche Moon, a 6-hour prequel to author Larry McMurtry's classic Lonesome Dove.

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 13th at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing Tuesday and Wednesday at the same hour on CBS
Starring: Steve Zahn, Karl Urban, Rachel Griffiths, Val Kilmer, Wes Studi, Adam Beach, David Midthunder, Linda Cardellini, Elizabeth Banks, Keith Robinson, Ryan Merriman, Sal Lopez, Joseph Castanon, Josh Berry
Directed by: Simon Wincer
Produced by: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana

Topping the deservedly sainted Lonesome Dove is a Mission: Impossible, so let's not put Comanche Moon too much to that test.

All these years later -- 19 to be exact -- the six-hour CBS prequel makes the best of times in which broadcast network budgets have been gnawed to the nub while miniseries are virtually extinct. In that context, Comanche Moon musters enough lustre to easily stand out amid a strike-torn sea of junky reality series, repeats and a handful of scripted midseason series that banked episodes before production screeched to a halt.

Premiering Sunday night and continuing on Tuesday and Wednesday, Comanche Moon looks authentically grimy and feels at least a bit like an epic western. Still, Texas author Larry McMurtry's 1997 extension of his Lonesome Dove saga clearly sags in comparison as both a novel (which I recently read) and as a television "event" that's notably short on star power or truly memorable performances.

CBS' 1989 original, shown in four parts, had perhaps the most towering cast in TV history. Start with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in the respective roles of retired Texas Rangers Gus McRae and Woodrow Call. Add the likes of Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Chris Cooper and Steve Buscemi. Sprinkle with Frederic Forrest, Barry Corbin, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, Glenne Headly and D.B. Sweeney. All of whom rose to the occasion.

Comanche Moon is a comparative bare pantry. Its best-known cast members are Val Kilmer, Rachel Griffiths and Wes Studi. But the director, then and now, is Australian Simon Wincer, who knows his way around Westerns. And perhaps he was more at ease this time around, absent all those well-documented off-screen "creative differences" with the oft-unyielding Duvall.

Whatever their difficulties, Duvall emerged on-screen as one helluva Gus McRae. His successor, Steve Zahn (Happy, Texas), does a very able job of reprising Duvall's voice patterns and overall devil-may-care nature. But he looks a bit slight to be playing Gus, who in Duvall's hands rode majestically tall in the saddle, particularly when galloping away from his beloved Clara Forsythe (Huston and now Linda Cardellini).

Karl Urban (The Chronicles of Riddick) likewise channels Jones in reprising the almost otherworldly stoicism of Woodrow Call. Tapping into his deepest feelings still leaves a dry hole. His relationship with ill-fated prostitute Maggie Tilton (Elizabeth Banks), who bears him a son he refuses to acknowledge, is a case study of repressed human emotion in the face of unrequited longing. The CBS version of Comanche Moon is very faithful to the book in this respect, leaving this viewer with a strong urge to punch Call's lights out.

The basic makeups of McRae and Call come down to the former telling the latter: "I mostly think about love, and you mostly think about war."

But opposites attract, then as now. Except that both men would rather hit the dusty trail than settle for even a reasonable facsimile of stability.

The story begins in the seemingly arctic cold of 1858 Northwest Texas after a brief prequel used to at least partially justify an eventual deadly Comanche raid on Austin. A prequel to a prequel? Just asking.

A small contingent of 10 freezing Texas Rangers is led by eccentric Captain Inish Scull (Val Kilmer), who's fated to suffer mightily -- although not too graphically -- at the hands of the Mexican despot Ahumado (Sal Lopez).

Back at the Scull manse in Austin, his almost savagely promiscuous wife, Inez (Rachel Griffiths), is lately dallying with apprentice Ranger Jake Spoon (Urich and now Ryan Merriman). Griffiths is OK as an amoral tigress, but the character is more of a sketch than fully drawn.

Kickapoo tracker Famous Shoes, vicious malcontent Blue Duck and Comanche chief Buffalo Hump are also key parts of the story.

Bedeviling the Rangers -- and also earning their grudging admiration -- are the remaining Comanche warriors resisting the White Man's vision of a subservient future.

Chief among them is the aging Buffalo Hump (Wes Studi), whom CBS has chosen to present without his enlarged hump. His son, Blue Duck (Adam Beach), is a smoldering cutthroat who rejects the old ways while living only to thieve and kill. They don't get along very well.

All of the Comanche dialogue is subtitled, lending considerable authenticity to the miniseries' many tribal scenes. But the Rangers' fast-moving Kickapoo tracker, Famous Shoes (David Midthunder), speaks in very stilted English. Envisioning Famous Shoes while reading the book and seeing him on-screen is a powerful disconnect. Of all the Comanche Moon characters adapted for television, this is by far the biggest disappointment.

Sunday's Part 1 ends powerfully with the regrouped Comanches heading in a formidable war party toward Austin while the Rangers are still afield. It's a violent raid, but tamed by broadcast TV restraints. Similarly, Inish Scull is treated quite badly by his Mexican captors. But unlike in the book, he's at least not shorn of his eyelids by a skinner named Goyeto. This is the "Eye" network after all.

The TV adaptation expands on the book in one significant way. It continues the relationship between Gus and Clara both before and beyond her marriage to sturdy Nebraska cattleman Bob Allen (Josh Berry). The book distanced them in too big a hurry. But here you'll get more of a romance to hang your hat on.

On the other hand, the CBS version resorts to an odd and unsatisfying bit of mysticism to decide the cruel Ahumado's fate. And vivid Lonesome Dove supporting characters such as Deets (Glover/Keith Robinson) and Pea Eye Parker (Tim Scott/Troy Baker) are largely beside the point in Comanche Moon after much fuller treatments in the book.

You can expect a satisfying finishing kick on Wednesday night, though. Part 3 immediately gallops to seven years hence, with Gus rather joltingly a second-time widower, as he was in the book. Zahn's performance as Gus grows fuller and deeper here, particularly after he rides off by his lonesome in hopes of sorting out all that's befallen him.

Little Newt (Joseph Castanon) also comes into focus as a bright-eyed kid whose father, Woodrow, keeps spitting up the bit. Maggie, now a "respectable" general store worker, also comes into her own as a woman who "can't live without affection."

In the end, fans of McMurtry's most famous western characters should be able to live with Comanche Moon. It's a quality effort that means well, ends well and pretty much holds the fort. And when you're following a legend, that's saying something.

Grade: B+