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Friday, June 1, 2012

Hatfields & McCoys bring History alive

Premiering to record breaking numbers for cable, it is clear that the History Channel has a hit on its hands with the new miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. It's not too late to catch the six hour saga, as it continues to repeat. And catch it, you should. This is what the History Channel should do more of! Bring the stories of the past alive in well scripted, well produced drama. In this goal, Hatfields & McCoys succeeds admirably.

That's not to say the series is perfect. At times the dialogue seems hokey, though it could be authentic to the time. And sure, dramatic license is taken to spice up historical events. But the core here is a true story, and watching a series such as this will not only entertain, but enlighten the viewer to an important chapter of America's tale. That is a laudable feat.

Hatfields & McCoys stars Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves, Swing Vote) as Devil Anse Hatfield and Bill Paxton (Big Love, Twister) as Randall McCoy. Starting out as friends during the Civil War, tensions begin when Devil deserts to return to his family. This is an act Randall, a god-loving loyalist, cannot wrap his head around. It may be a minor incident, with no death involved, but it's the start of a deep misunderstanding between two honorable men, as each holds different priorities the other cannot comprehend, both of which are just.

If only that were the end of things. But then a pig is possibly stolen, and the hotter heads in both clans stir trouble. Not seeing the harm in minor clashes, Randall and Devil do not act to bring order to the families they head until it's too late. Then, as the body count rises, and the offenses continue, both are caught up in the battle themselves. Each insult must be answered with another. Not every cousin and brother can be kept in line. It's easy to see, without demonizing either party, how things spiral out of control, until it becomes nearly impossible to stop the feud. Of course, there is an end point, but for those who aren't history buffs, you'll have to watch to find out what the final straw is.

To keep Hatfields & McCoys interesting for six hours is no small chore. To accomplish this, an entire host of supporting characters are introduced in the two clans. It's hard to keep track of who belongs with who at times, making one long for the simple two-color system modern sports teams utilize in creating jerseys. They are all from a similar area of the country, and live similar lives, so by sight, there is no difference. And some of these players are taken out before they get the chance to do anything truly notable. But each adds to fleshing out the world, and keeping things moving, as well as providing a felt cost as the body count rises.

Among those who make an impression, in no particular order: Uncle Jim Vance (Tom Berenger, Inception, October Road), the war-loving Hatfield; Perry Cline (Ronan Vibert, The Borgias) as the McCoy's sleazy lawyer cousin; 'Bad' Frank Phillips (Andrew Howard, Limitless, Burn Notice), who serves as a mercenary for the McCoys to avenge a personal grudge against Uncle Jim; Levicy Hatfield (Sarah Parish, Mistresses), Devil's supportive wife; Judge Wall Hatfield (Powers Boothe, 24, Deadwood), who thinks the legal system will sort things out; Cap Hatfield (Boyd Holbrook, Milk, The Big C), a half blind sharpshooter; Cotton Top (Noel Fisher, Shameless, The Riches), a Hatfield who is mentally stunted; and Sally McCoy (Mare Winningham, Mildred Pierce, Grey's Anatomy), Randall's slightly insane wife. Each of these actors do a wonderful job, and deserve as much credit as the two leads for selling the miniseries so well.

Of course, there is a love story. How can there not be? Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr, Hellcats, Harper's Island) is a player, who falls for Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher, True Blood, The Beast), a sweet girl. Their families refuse to let them be together, even though the young ones argue a marriage will help prevent an all out war between the clans. Surprisingly, love does not win.

As compelling as the story may be on the surface, it's a little hard to reconcile the presented soulful, truly good Johnse with the one who is eventually seduced by wicked cousin Nancy McCoy (Jena Malone, Sucker Punch, Life as a House), and then has four more wives later in life, as the ending scroll tells us. This feels like it might be the most twisted away from reality plot, done to further the television expectations.

Luckily, any weak points in the script, besides being overlooked because of the fantastic acting, are overshadowed be spectacular production value. Settings and costumes look great, and the music, when it doesn't veer into melodramatic territory, really helps set the tone. There is a lot to praise here, and the overall impression is very impressive. Look for some Emmy nods later this summer, and perhaps even a few wins.

If you missed it the first time, check out Hatfields & McCoys, currently running on the History Channel.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Article first published as  Hatfields & McCoys bring History alive on

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