Hatfields & McCoys: TV Review
History's first foray into scripted fare focuses on the legendary civil war era feud and features fine performances from Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton.
With History feeling the urge of pretty much every other cable channel -- to get into the scripted business -- it makes sense it would choose historical fiction. However, the six-hour miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, is not, creatively speaking, the greatest start History could have hoped for.
The network, once famous for Hitler documentaries and now for such unscripted hits as Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars, already has greenlighted its first scripted series, Vikings, from Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Elizabeth), set for 2013. So Hatfield & McCoys, the first scripted miniseries, can be seen as a trial run.
Here’s the first problem: Revenge dramas are inherently flawed. You killed one of mine, so I kill one of yours. Is there drama in there? A bit -- waiting for the gun to go off yet again as the sides tally the score. But, dramatically, you know what’s going to happen here: An eye is going to be taken for an eye until the whole South goes blind.
This is amplified tenfold with an adaptation of the real-life battle between the Hatfield and McCoy families, of West Virginia and Kentucky, respectively. The feud began in the late 1800s, and there’s much debate about who started it. Not that we want to side with either clan in the History version; both are pretty damn unlikable.
We meet Devil Anse Hatfield (Costner) and Randall McCoy (Paxton) fighting together and fleeing Union soldiers during the Civil War. The South is reeling, and despite fierce fighting from Hatfield, who leads his brigade, and McCoy, who is willing to die until the end, it looks like fate is against them. Then, without enough reason given, Hatfield quits and heads home. McCoy stays and as the last survivor of his brigade is captured and put into a Union prison. Upon his return home, he’s a little miffed to see that Hatfield is doing just fine in the timber business. There are no bygones here.
But then events go astray. It’s not clear if the families had issues before the war, but they seem to have a whole lot of them out of the blue when the fighting is over. Conveniently, the Hatfields and McCoys always seem to be at some event where alcohol and guns are involved and, well, one thing always leads to another. This, underwhelmingly, is where the miniseries decides to keep at it. Issue after issue comes up. Family members die, retaliation comes, and both families spit out the names of the other in every conversation.
Then a pig gets stolen (allegedly) and the six Hatfields on one side of the jury battle the six McCoys on the other, until one McCoy who is married to a Hatfield makes the wrong choice and -- look out -- more bloodshed. You may think that story about the pig is a fabrication of events to illustrate the mundane warring of the families, but no.
It’s pretty difficult to feel sorry for either side, since each episode appears to be dumb/drunk hillbillies doing something bad to the other side. Even when Hatfields & McCoys sets up a scenario in which the viewer can get emotionally invested (despite seeing it coming a mile away), like the love affair, marriage proposal and baby out of wedlock between a Hatfield and a McCoy, the investment is lost when both sides do something stupid.
Are we supposed to care for these people? Are we supposed to pick a side? It ain’t easy. There are times when Costner gives a terrific performance and you think, “Well, there it is, he’s our hero.” Then he does something despicable. Paxton then rises up and does something righteous, only to go dumb immediately afterward.
That is to say, no matter how hard each actor works to present the Hatfield or the McCoy side, it’s a moot point. Neither family gets sympathy or respect. And maybe that’s considered a badge of honor at History -- as if it has presented two antiheroes so effectively that the edginess of the effort cuts you to the bone.
Except it doesn’t. Hatfields & McCoys is less dark and dramatically difficult than it is pointlessly trying to tell each side of the story and ultimately making the case for neither. Hatfield vs. McCoy vs. Hatfield vs. McCoy vs. Hatfield vs. McCoy ad nauseam isn’t dramatic. It’s tedious. Somewhere around the three-hour mark, all you want to do is have both families line up opposite each other, pull the trigger and fade to black.