Netflix has its western, "Godless," a limited series streaming to binge as of Wednesday. (I am not counting the final season of "Longmire" or the comedy "The Ranch," which are set in the present day.)
Steven Soderbergh is an executive producer, betokening prestige and meaning that his name is linked with the title in every press report. But “Godless” has been written and directed by Scott Frank, best known as a screenwriter — he scripted Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" and more recently worked on "The Wolverine" and "Logan."
Filmed and mostly set in New Mexico in the 1880s, the series is not "about" the West or westerns. It doesn't mean to show you the West as it "really was," or examine how the genre embodies some aspect of the American character. It is not philosophical at its core, like "Deadwood" or "Westworld."
It gathers up the tropes of the genre and twists them a little, in order not to perfectly repeat old business — there is a strong feminist element mixed in — but the old business is still basically the business it's in, from its widescreen vistas to its elegiac trumpets to the cry of a bird echoing through a canyon. It has elements of "Shane" and "The Magnificent Seven" and remakes an iconic image from "The Searchers."
There is what in the old talking pictures they called a “widder” woman; there is a schoolmarm and a cocky young gunslinger. There are arrogant Eastern businessmen and their sinister private security. There is a settlement of black former Civil War soldiers. There are Norwegian settlers. There is a sheriff, who is not the coward he is taken for. There is a good bad man and a mad bad man.
The series opens with Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston, appealingly grizzled) emerging out of smoke and dust into an apocalypse, a town of shot, burned and hanging bodies, with a train blown off its tracks.
Then we meet, individually, three wounded men. One is Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, bulky, bearded, like an Old Testament prophet), the mad bad man, whose arm is hanging by a tendon, a reasonable person in his own mind, given to situational kindness. Another is Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell), a horse-whispering ex-outlaw shot by Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) as he stumbles onto her place in the dark, ministered to by the Paiute grandmother (Tantoo Cardinal) of her son (Samuel Marty). (Alice needs healing too, of a different sort.) It was Goode who nearly shot off Griffin's arm, before making off with his loot, and whom Griffin is now pursuing.
The third is Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), who has gone to Paiute healers to help his failing eyes. The guardian of a town otherwise peopled by women, old men and children — the young men having all died in a mine disaster — he is that familiar figure, the Lawman in Need of Redemption, feeling "old and useless in the eyes of everyone that looks at ya." He will meet up with Goode and Griffin soon enough.
The consciousness of watching things you've seen before, even in a different order, can make "Godless" feel ordinary, for a while — even including its more gothic elements. But there is a kind of cumulative pleasure in this company. (I have to also mention, among this excellent cast, Merritt Wever, as McNue's take-charge sister Mary-Agnes, remaking herself in a town without men.) As photographed by Steven Meizler, it's always beautiful to look at.
Visually, it recalls the westerns of the 1970s; there is a lively, almost loving crispness to the images. The wide frame means you can put a closeup to the camera and still take in the landscape, for passing contemplation of man and nature. And at seven hours — twice the length of "Heaven's Gate," if anyone's counting — "Godless" has time enough to admire cloud-filled skies, enjoy a sunset, scan a horizon. That as much as anything is the meaning of this series.
As usual with this sort of story, one waits to see whether the heroes will outlast the villains, if the hoped for comeuppance is coming and if the passages of violence are worth the payoff (unless violence is your payoff, of course, but as modern westerns go, "Godless" is less than usually explicit). You wait to see whether your mounting investment of time will leave you cursing television or praising its goldenness. Two decades of antiheroic television drama have been hard on straight-up heroes. Without being specific or spoilery, I can tell you that I did not want to curse my television, and that "Godless," the grimness of its title notwithstanding, goes somewhere almost corny, but kind of beautiful.
When: Any time, starting Wednesday