"The American West," which premieres Saturday on AMC, is an eight-part docudrama, officially styled as "a limited series," about America between the Missouri River and Pacific Ocean from the end of the Civil War to 1890. – the year of the Wounded Knee Massacre, and the year the Census Bureau declared the frontier settled.
It is not a new story, of course: Ken Burns already put his lavish, quasi-final documentary stamp on it in the 1996, nine-part "The West." And the characters highlighted in its opening credits – Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Gen. George Custer, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull – have been stars or bit players in countless other documentaries and dramas. They are stuff of national legendlword missing?, the warring gods of our homegrown mythology.
What's fresh in this retelling, produced by Robert Redford, is the degree to which it has gone in for re-creation as opposed to documentation, and the fact that it has drafted a pack of movie cowboys, including Tom Selleck, Kiefer Sutherland, Danny Glover, Mark Harmon, Burt Reynolds and Redford himself, as talking-head commentators alongside the customary scholars. There is a smattering, to put it generously, of period ephemera, but we never see a photograph of James or Custer or Sitting Bull, only the actors made up to play them.
With dialogue that might have been whipped together for a middle-school project, it's more dress-up than drama, more reenactment than documentary – "America's Most Western." General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant, though often seen, has so little to say I thought perhaps the actor playing him didn't speak English; he's represented mostly in a state of tired contemplation, staring ruefully into the middle distance., usually with a cigar and/or a glass of something meant to be alcoholic at hand. Others have more to do, but not that much more.
If the series' knit-brow seriousness sometimes reads as a parody of seriousness, it also gives it a sense of play; of dress-up; of boys, which is to say men, – in the two hours available for review, it is almost all men, talking about men – running around the forest with guns. (I don't mean that in its disfavor; it's what makes it fun, even if fun was not the point.) And it does tease out and knit together themes that can get jumbled up in our fuzzy, fantasy-fed view of history – the way that the story of the West was in part a hangover from the Civil War. or that the coming of the railroad links the career of Jesse James, the Monetary Panic of 1873, the Dakota gold rush, the end of Grant's peace with the Indians, and so on.
Some will derive pleasure merely from vetting the authenticity of the clothes and materiel, the accuracy of the action, the appropriateness of the locations. (West Virginia and Utah seem to be where most of it was filmed.) There are many old trains to admire, puffing prettily along mountain riverbeds.
The American West infobox 6/11/16
'The American West'
When: 10:10 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)