The Wild West is long gone. No longer do Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok ride tall in the saddle, trading hot lead with cattle rustlers and card sharks. The prairie's been tamed, the mountains have been mapped. The days of dime-store cowboys and frontier justice are over.
Except, perhaps, in Absaroka County, Wyoming.
It's not as if the county is a place that time forgot. If you want to build a barn, chances are you still need a building permit. But in this rural backwater, a hint of frontier remains. Only a handful of law officers are on hand to patrol an area that seems as big and sprawling as the skies above, and Wyoming's wide open scrubland offers plenty of space to conduct illegal activities or bury the occasional body. And just like in the old days, the lawmen themselves have their own skeletons to hide.
In A&E's drama Longmire (based on a series of mysteries written by Craig Johnson), Walt Longmire is the sheriff for the aforementioned Absaroka County—Wyoming through and through. He looks the part, as if he was raised on sagebrush and whiskey. He's a pragmatic man, knowing instinctively what petty issues to let slide for the community's greater good. And even though he's on friendly terms with most in the area, he won't hesitate to take someone down if they get in his (or the law's) way.
His three deputies are Victoria "Vic" Moretti, a one-time cop from Philly; The Ferg, well-meaning but sometimes inept; and Branch Connolly, second in command, and with an eye on the sheriff's badge itself. Longmire also gets some off-the-books help from Henry Standing Bear, a local barkeep and Longmire's best friend.
But even as Longmire and Co. do what they can to take the bad guys down, they're not above stretching the law to catch the folks who outright break it. And, as noted, they're not all so squeaky clean themselves.
One example: For a year before the show begins, Longmire was a drunken wreck—mourning the murder of his beloved wife at the hands of a meth addict. But then said meth addict winds up dead himself, buried in a shallow grave. (Through flashbacks we see hints that he and Henry likely know more about the murder than they're telling.)
In a way, Longmire is nothing new: At its core the A&E show is a crime procedural, just like so many of its scripted compatriots. And yet it feels a bit different. The setting looks rough and dusty, as it should. The actors flesh out their roles in believable ways. Even the squeaks and thumps heard in the interior of the hard-used SUV the sheriff drives speaks to a rare authenticity here. And that gives Longmire some atmospheric grit. This is a hard land that sometimes attracts desperate people, after all, and the camera doesn't flinch from their misdeeds.
But neither does it linger on gratuitous scenes of carnage. Sexual exploits have been rare (but not extinct, I should say). Foul language comes across as more earthy than blue.
We're told we live in a new golden age of television—a time when storytelling on the small screen is at its best. But all that quality comes with a downside: Most of the best shows are also the worst, filled with so much sex, violence and bad language that some R-rated movies feel tame when directly compared.
Longmire, which has received strong notices from mainstream critics, is not without its problems. But it manages to be gritty without being dark. It tells its story without succumbing to salaciousness. It illustrates that good television doesn't have to be quite so bad. And that's good to see. But not necessarily always completely appropriate. So to speak.
"The Great Spirit"
A man is shot when a gun-shooting trick goes awry. He survives—but the next day the shooter himself is found dead, shot through the neck and dragged through the scrub by a horse. (The corpse is a mess, the face grotesquely torn.) Suspicion falls on the "illegals" who worked for the dead man. But Longmire uncovers other unsavory truths: The workers were being trafficked in from Mexico; they were given false promises, had their families taken away and were forced into indentured servitude.
A splash of blood is seen when that trick goes wrong, and a bloody bandage afterwards. A flashback shows Longmire staggering into Henry's hotel room, bleeding profusely from his back. (We watch a woman stitch up the long wound.) Longmire ties a guy to a horse and threatens to let the beast drag him if he doesn't confess. Someone gets punched in the face.
To get some information, Vic flirts with a trick shooter—admiring the man's holster and telling him she's "into leather."
Henry offers a visiting police officer free beer. Folks pour booze. They shoot bottles and liquor-filled glasses. They discuss meth addicts. Two people smoke cigars. Gambling and gambling debt turns up in the story, as do the words "a‑‑" and "d‑‑n" (once each), "h‑‑‑" (three or four times). God's name is misused a couple of times.