History knows more than a little something about the dangers of messing with a big family.
The network's first foray into scripted drama was derailed last year when its ambitious biopic "The Kennedys" drew intense pre-release criticism from family members and leading historians. Eventually, the basic cable channel abandoned its firstborn, and the relatively unknown ReelzChannel aired the program, which later earned Emmy nominations for all of its male leads, and an Emmy win for Barry Pepper's portrayal of Bobby Kennedy.
So it is only fitting that the first miniseries to actually air on History is another chronicle of the perils of familial power and ambition. But where "The Kennedys" sang of greatness, both in its rigors and its moral cost, "Hatfields & McCoys" can only lament and despair. There is no greatness here, only the tragedy of pride and bitterness made deadly by two stubborn men — each with too many sons, too many guns, too little sense, and way too much liquor.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds and written by Ted Mann and Ronald Parker, "Hatfields & McCoys" is a star-studded, gorgeously produced and astonishingly nuanced look at America's most famous family feud, which began after the Civil War in the Appalachian Mountains along the Kentucky-West Virginia border.
Although deftly nailed into its time and place with sets and costumes so vivid you can smell the blue wood smoke and the stink of moonshine sweat, "Hatfields & McCoys" transcends the confines of its age by revealing the feud's posturing, resentments and callous violence that mirror the dynamics of modern urban gangs.
With Kevin Costner as Devil Anse Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, an immediate standard of dramatic excellence is set by the two actors to which the rest of the cast must live up — and they do.
When we first meet Devil Anse and Randall, they are fighting together in the Confederate Army. Within minutes on the battlefield, one saves the other — and then the favor is promptly returned.
But Devil Anse, fed up with a war that cannot be won, deserts — something Randall, a Bible-quoting zealot, cannot forgive. After being taken prisoner, Randall's heart hardens more when he returns home to find the Hatfields flourishing under Devil Anse's leadership, while his wife (the glorious and far too rarely seen Mare Winningham) has become a grim shadow struggling to keep food on her family's table.
To make matters worse, a Hatfield relative — the grizzled sociopath Jim Vance (Tom Berenger) — has already killed a McCoy who made the mistake of fighting for the Union Army. Soon the families are at such odds that a budding romance between Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr) and Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher) kicks up a maelstrom of violence and murder that eventually ensnares bounty hunters, deputies, two state governments and the Supreme Court.
But no matter how wide the conflict becomes, it is always the two men who are at the story's center. As Devil Anse, Costner comes as close to a hero as this piece gets. It is a truly brilliant performance, worthy of an Emmy for the pipe-smoking alone.
Costner makes this Hatfield as wise as he is ruthless. He appears to be the only character aware of what is actually happening and the only one capable of stopping it, which makes his refusal to do so until it is too late the story's greatest tragedy.
Paxton's Randall is a more calcified force. Summoning an Old Testament version of the religious devotion that fueled his character in HBO's"Big Love," Paxton creates a man so obsessed with prayer he has lost sight of God. His character is so concerned with the purity of his soul that he does not notice his heart has turned to stone and that he's become a man who would claim to save his family by sacrificing them one by one.
With their careful speech and tobacco-spitting ways, Randall and Devil Anse are men of their time, grimy, bearded and oblivious to the humanity of their wives and children, to the impossible demands of machismo, to the obvious implications of their actions. But they, like Berenger's crazy Vance and Winningham's stoic Sally, could just as easily be characters in a modern play, which is what makes "Hatfields & McCoys" so mesmerizing.
It isn't a perfect piece — as with "The Kennedys," when faced with a choice between historic detail and story, "Hatfield & McCoys" errs on the side of detail, which is both the series' greatest strength and weakness. At times the sight of dirty men shooting one another in the woods yet again becomes a little tedious.
Still, it bodes well for the reality-heavy network and its ability to execute a scripted series. If this is what History has in mind, then by all means, bring on "The Vikings."