Westerns once ruled the range of television programming. Movie studios, with their frontier town back lots and existing soundstage sets produced dozens of "oaters" from the 1950s, through the 1960s, the peak reached in 1959, with 26 series in production, including Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Maverick for the three networks of the day. Public taste subsided by the end of the 1960s as the complexities of modern life and changing morality lessened the appeal of a genre based on clearly perceived right and wrong. (And it was expensive to rent horses for $100 a day.)

With only occasional attempts to bring back the form, the Western as period piece may be giving way to a modern day version. For three years, Justified, set in the wild hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky, has featured Raylan Givens, a deputy U.S. Marshal who likes the old six-gun heroes enough to wear a cowboy hat as he takes down the bad guys. Next fall will see Vegas, about a real-life sheriff fighting gangsters in early 1960s Las Vegas. This summer, A&E continues its venture from reality programming into scripted storytelling with Longmire, a modern-day western crime drama, based on a Wyoming-set series of books by Craig Johnson. 

Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire lost his wife a year ago and the series begins with his re-entry into his law enforcement career when a body is found in the woods. As played by Australian actor Robert Taylor, the man has covered many miles on bad roads and it shows it on his weathered features.

Taylor's the real find here, with his crow's feet eyes and low voice exuding a quiet strength. His presence in a scene, and he's in almost every one, commands the space. His laconic speech conveys, thanks in part to the good scripts, that he often knows more than he's sharing. Being the sheriff, he knows almost everyone in the county and they often refer to him by his first name. 

Longmire's right-hand woman is deputy "Vic" Moretti (Battlestar Galactica's Katie Sackoff), who was a homicide detective back east before joining him as the second most experienced officer in the sheriff's office. In the first episode, Walt learns that one of his other deputies, Branch Connelly, unsatisfied with Walt's absenteeism and low-tech approach to police work (he won't even carry a cell phone), is running against him in the next election and, unknown to Walt, his daughter Cady's boyfriend. 

Cady (Cassidy Freeman, from Smallville) is a lawyer who wants her father to get past the trauma of losing his wife and re-engage with life. Walt's helped with this by his good friend Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips, owner of the local saloon who a confidant and an informal liason with the nearby Indian reservation.

Despite all the western trappings of big hats, boots, ranches and brass star badges, Longmire isn't really a Western with a weekly showdown. It's superficial resemblance to shows like Gunsmoke are undermined by its focus on the title character and we can see that the show intends to gradually reveal who this haunted man is. When Walt demonstrates his intimate knowledge of firearms to disprove Branch's argument that he's found the vintage rifle used in a murder, the embarrassed deputy responds by accusing him of spending his time reading in his office and drinking so much that his truck is full of beer cans. 

Walt responds by stating that anyone who knows him knows he drinks one brand and none of that kind were in his truck—he was cleaning up after litterbugs. And that book he was reading was the classic Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, part of his interest in crime solving. "If you're going to be sheriff," he tells Branch," you need to start brushin' up on your detective work." Indeed, between Walt and Vic's forensic skills, they are practically the CSI of Absaroka County. Walt's impressive deductive skills, based on long experience with outdoor life, weapons and human nature makes him a formidable detective. 

The prospects for the series seem positive given the early ratings success yet the show doesn't score as well with the much coveted 18-49 yr. demographic. It benefits from shooting in New Mexico, certainly a beautifully acceptable alternative to yet another southern California-based production. There's snow on the ground in scenes set in the foothills and in one hostage situation, I'm sure there were real flurries swirling around the actors. 

My hunch is, the show is hitting the middle-aged A&E viewer just as you would expect for a show starring a deliberately unglamorous but rugged lead, and the network is to be congratulated for not slavishly seeking the youth audience. This modern sheriff is more than a stolid lawman, he's also a reminder of the type of hero we rarely see, the self-reliant, get-‘er-done male who's underestimated by about everyone.

Walt Longmire's haunted face, the hint of buried secrets yet to come to light may intrigue viewers enough to invest long-term in this unusual protagonist. You root for him to overcome whatever demons he's battling just as you appreciate the realism of his heavy panting after one of the action scenes. 

So far we've gotten to know the sheriff, but for the show to really take off, it needs to develop the other characters besides one-sentence biographies. Why did Vic leave the big city and move to a tiny Western town? Is Henry Standing Bear going to be anything more than a listening ear to Walt's angst? And how is the sparsely populated Absaroka County going to produce enough corpses to support several seasons on a basic cable crime drama?

*This Review First Published 7/3/2012