Circle the wagons

Times Staff Writer

THE last of the four “Lonesome Dove” novels to be filmed (and the last to be written, though chronologically the second in the series), “Comanche Moon” finally joins its fellows as a miniseries this week.

It has been 11 years since the book was published, and a dozen since the last “Dove” adaptation. I can’t say why it has taken so long for it to arrive. (It premieres Sunday night on CBS and continues on Tuesday and Wednesday.) Perhaps too few people watched the last miniseries; there aren’t a lot of reasons to watch this one, though it has its moments -- you would expect at least a few over the course of six hours -- and a continually saving grace in Steve Zahn.

This must have looked good on paper. The original 1989 “Lonesome Dove,” with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in roles that are here played by Zahn and Karl Urban, won a lot of awards and is widely and affectionately regarded as one of the best miniseries ever. Larry McMurtry co-wrote the “Comanche Moon” adaptation; “Dove” director Simon Wincer signed on again. Val Kilmer, Linda Cardellini, Rachel Griffiths, Adam Beach and Wes Studi, who have proved themselves elsewhere, joined the cast.


But “Comanche Moon” casts no spell; it’s a pedestrian job that only rarely lets you feel you’re where you’re supposed to be, watching characters knitted into the scenery rather than just actors standing in it. (The scenery is nice, I will say, but can seem no less remote for being, you know, real.)

Zahn and Urban play Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call in their pre- and post-Civil War Texas Ranger days, keeping Texas safe for Texans and trying to figure out the women who can’t figure them out either. (Cardellini is the storekeeper Gus loves, Elizabeth Banks plays the golden-hearted prostitute whose child Call won’t call his own.) Their scenes together are the best thing here, not so much for what they say, but for the rhythms they get going.

Zahn, especially, seems to carry with him a credible aura of the Old West, and whoever or whatever comes within his range becomes itself just a bit more believable for the proximity. At first he appears to be taking the role of comic sidekick to the heroically tall and good-looking, serious, taciturn, continually brow-knitted Urban. But as the show goes on, he becomes the one you trust. Everything Zahn does feels right -- the way he speaks, moves, wears his clothes, holds his body -- and if one is conscious of watching a good performance in a bad movie, there’s still a pleasure in that.

Kilmer plays eccentric Ranger Capt. Inish Scull, eccentrically. A shaved head on night two, plus a few extra pounds, suggest he’s in a Brando phase, though by night three, white-haired and whiskered like Mark Twain, he more resembles a Muppet. Griffiths is his autocratic, nymphomaniac (or perhaps just extremely bored) wife, who has a fondness for whips and is first glimpsed on the balcony of their mansion, topless, red hair cascading strategically. I think we’re supposed to find the character amusing; in any case, it’s difficult to take her serious- ly.

Sal Lopez is the bandit Ahumado, who hangs Scull in a bird cage and throws him in a snake pit; David Midthunder, stiff of speech but fleet of foot, is the Rangers’ tracker. Studi plays a Comanche war chief and Beach his troublesome son -- their antipathy occupies a major subplot and their final confrontation is the closest thing the series offers to a climax, though it doesn’t involve any of the main characters.

Diffuse, episodic and sometimes just daft, “Comanche Moon” lacks purpose -- and at great length. As a prequel to “Lonesome Dove,” it is almost doomed to a lack of resolution, and most every story line here quietly expires in a puff of “Huh?” Confrontations the viewer might reasonably expect never come to pass, and some that do seem unconvincing -- engineered in order to set the stage for the next, previously written chapter. You may feel the need to go out and read or rent “Lonesome Dove” afterward, just for a little closure.




‘Comanche Moon’

Where: CBS

When: 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)