It’s great that westerns no longer rely on heroic white men, Mexican bandits, and yee-hawing Native Americans — and that when they do, it’s usually in order to comment on those tired, offensive tropes. We’re at a point where the revisionism that bloomed in the 1960s and ’70s with “The Wild Bunch” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” has become the norm, with all of its moral complexity and unromanticized imagery.
“The Son,” a new AMC western series, fits into that new norm, as its major characters aren’t generally only good or bad. But sadly, that contemporary approach isn’t enough to give the drama freshness and vitality. There’s something naggingly familiar about “The Son,” as it unfolds in two time periods in Texas — 1849 and 1915. I was rarely surprised by plot developments, and consistently disappointed by stubbornly bland characterizations. Like AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” the show inspires all kinds of middling adjectives — decent, average, fair, and all right. It’s not bad, but it’s not quite good, either.
Based on the 2013 novel by Philipp Meyer, who is also among the show’s writers and producers, “The Son” tracks the story of Eli McCullough, played as a boy in 1849 by Jacob Lofland and as an adult in 1915 by Pierce Brosnan. The two-hour premiere, Sunday at 9 p.m., opens with an effectively painful sequence, as young Eli and his family are attacked by Comanches and he and his brother are brought to live with them. He becomes a slave to a war chief named Toshaway, played by Zahn McClarnon (Hanzee Dent in season two of “Fargo”), and the tribe’s women ridicule him. But gradually, with some “Dances With Wolves”-like developments, he grows more comfortable with and sympathetic to them.
Meanwhile, in the parallel story line, Eli has grown up to become Brosnan, and he has turned into a ruthless, wealthy ranch owner with a Texas accent by way of Ireland. To create a future, he is trying to find oil on his land, and he is willing to lure investors with false promises. He has a tense relationship with the local Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and particularly with the Garcia family, some of whom believe Eli’s land doesn’t truly belong to him. He and patriarch Pedro Garcia (Carlos Bardem) seem to have an understanding, but Garcia’s son-in-law, Cesar (Elliot Villar), is far less accepting. Is a feud brewing?
Eli has two sons. Pete (Henry Garrett) is a trusting idealist whose is married but may have some unfinished business with one of Pedro’s daughters. He struggles with his father’s tendency toward greed and savagery. Phineas (David Wilson Barnes), who is older and a lawyer, is more willing to cheat alongside his father. He has a secret life, which is why he manages the family money out of his home in Austin. The sons are written schematically, like so much in “The Son.” Each of the characters has a few common traits, and he or she fits neatly somewhere in the show’s themes of peace and violence, old ways and new ways, dishonor and fair play.
None of the performers stands out, and in many cases I suspect that’s because they’re not given much depth or specificity by the script. While AMC is known for some of TV’s best dramas, and while the cinematography in “The Son” is grand, this western doesn’t promise to become more than “Dallas” on the frontier.
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Henry Garrett, Zahn McClarnon, Sydney Lucas, James Parks, J. Quinton Johnson, David Wilson Barnes, Paola Núñez, Carlos Bardem, Elliot Villar, Jacob Lofland
On: AMC, Saturday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.