May 29, 2012

THE SKED REVIEW: “Hatfields & McCoys” Episode 1

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Even as the scripted drama business on the broadcast networks subsides into increasing irrelevance, new players arise who want to take part.  Dramas may not be cost-effective in the way that they once were, but they’re still an unmatched vehicle for branding–just ask AMC–and Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are among the entities who either are or clearly are planning to be developing and presenting new shows.  Another new entrant into the field is History Channel, which began as a place for old-school documentaries, hit it big with reality series like Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars and Swamp People, and now wants to play with the big boys.  Its 3-part, 6-hour debut into the drama world is HATFIELDS & MCCOYS, a saga of the legendary backwoods feud that started on Monday night, will continue on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then be repeated unto eternity.

H&M comes with plenty of fine credentials.  The star (as Anse Hatfield) and producer is Kevin Costner, with Bill Paxton as his antagonist Randall McCoy, and the cast also includes Tom Berenger and Powers Boothe as Hatfields, and Mare Winningham and Jena Malone as McCoys.  The show is directed by Kevin Reynolds, notorious for having partnered on Waterworld with Costner back in the day (they’ve since reconciled), but a very skilled action director with films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Rapa Nui and The Count of Monte Cristo to his credit.  The opening 2 hours are written by Ted Mann, whose career includes work on Deadwood and NYPD Blue.  Reynolds has been given sufficient budget so that the project has the look of a moderate-cost feature.

The opening 2-hour episode gets off to a good start.  Costner is completely in his element as Anse, the more pragmatic of the feuding parties.  We meet him and Paxton’s McCoy in 1863, when the two are comrades fighting for the South in the Civil War, but where Anse earns Randall’s contempt by deserting, rather than continuing to serve a doomed cause.  Once back in West Virginia and Kentucky, there’s a continuing stream of events that get the clans under each other’s skin:  the scheming lawyer Cline, related to the McCoys (Ronan Vibert), tries to con Anse out of the logging rights to his land; a Hatfield guns down a McCoy who fought for the Union; a McCoy steals a Hatfield’s pig.  Anse tries to keep the tensions somewhat under control, with the help of his cousin, the local judge (Boothe), while the devout, less compromising Randall gets his back increasingly up.  Randall is a less nuanced character than Anse, but Paxton is a worthy foe for Costner, and Boothe livens up every scene he’s in.  (Berenger, as Anse’s wild-man uncle, comes a little too close to self-parody.)

By the second hour, though, the show starts to show dramatic strains that could become worse as the show wears on.  Years go by in the story, and by the 1880s, Randall and Anse have less direct contact, with the stories centering more on a younger and less interesting generation.  The events become a somewhat repetitious relay of one side offending or harming the other, then the other doing the same back (that’s the problem with spending 6 hours detailing an in-bred feud).  The last section of the opening episode bogs down in a hackneyed Romeo & Juliet story, as Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher) and Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr), who both look and act like they wandered off the set of Hart of Dixie or some other glossy CW series, fall into forbidden love.

With 4 hours left, the show might find its center again, or it could begin dithering into confrontation after confrontation.  There’s certainly enough talent involved to make the show worth another visit, and even as the story becomes less compelling, the actors and production values still make it watchable.

In any case, Hatfields & McCoys has already accomplished History’s major goal of getting some attention for a classy kind of programming that hasn’t been associated with the network to date.  In a Memorial Day week with almost no original scripted content airing now that cable’s titanic Sunday is past, History has picked the right spot for its debutante ball.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."