History is attempting to repeat itself. At least ratings- and Emmys-wise.
The network’s new miniseries, “Texas Rising,” is not only executive produced by Leslie Greif and written by Ted Mann, part of the team responsible for the network’s phenomenal “Hatfields & McCoys,” but it also shares a leading man.
In the five-part chronicle of the Texas Revolution, Bill Paxton, nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Randall McCoy, plays the legendary Sam Houston, Tennessee governor turned victorious Texas leader.
Unfortunately, “Texas Rising,” is not as uniformly rich and splendid as “Hatfields & McCoys” or even Paxton’s terrific performance as Houston. Though an exciting tale told in careful detail with the help of a remarkable cast that includes Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Thomas Jane, Jeremy Davies, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Kris Kristofferson as President Andrew Jackson, “Texas Rising” is tonally challenged in a way that regularly undercuts its own inherent drama.
In wake of the Alamo’s fall, Texas seems far from rising. Beset by Mexican forces led by the ruthless Gen. Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez), warring Native Americans and their own increasing disorganization, those who would claim Texas as part of the United States are a raggedy mess. Many question Houston’s ability to lead the Texas Rangers and the viability of the cause itself.
Fortunately, a dedicated few, including the tubercular but still formidable Deaf Smith (Morgan) and fellow Rangers Billy Anderson (Fraser) and Henry Karnes (Christopher McDonald), know better. Driven by his own troubled past, Houston is the only man who can take on Santa Anna, a man so villainous he engages in cockfights, with birds fed on his own blood.
Mann doesn’t want to limit things to tough-guy valor, however, so he liberally sprinkles the first two episodes with humor. Or rather he frequently cuts away from the main narratives to provide something approximating humor.
Two young Ranger wannabes, awkwardly scampering around and telling fart jokes, get an unfortunate amount of screen time and are nowhere near as adorable as everyone seems to think they are. More effective is Davies as whining and conniving deserter Ephraim Knowles, who in another time might have been known as “Pap” and played by Walter Brennan.
Davies appears to be having a fine old time in his bullet hole-laced hat, but in early episodes anyway the comedy is not organic to the narrative. Instead, it switches from historic epic to spaghetti western a couple of times an hour, which frankly gets tiresome.
One subplot involves Emily West (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a historical character (described in the press notes as “unabashed courtesan”) who, legend has it, became the actual Yellow Rose of Texas. There’s also an odd-couple pair en route to join the Rangers and a vengeful survivor of the Alamo (apparently, that’s Liotta beneath the beard). All are promising enough, if a bit overdone. But the strength, and fate, of the series rests with Houston and Smith.
Playing men as human as they are heroic — Houston fled a marriage that failed under mysterious circumstances; Smith is made vulnerable by a Mexican wife whom he deeply loves — Paxton and Morgan manage to make their characters believable in moments sweeping, swift and occasionally absurd.
They may not be enough to raise the entirety of “Texas,” but they along with rich historical details that go well beyond the usual Alamo myths make the series worth watching.
When: 9 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)