Paving its trek through 19th-century U.S. history with good intentions, this six-part, 12-hour limited series stumbles through its ambitious journey, ultimately resembling the hokey “settling the West” films shown at Disneyland, minus the “Circle-Vision 360.” Featuring a stampede of genre cliches, Steven Spielberg’s imprimatur doesn’t compensate for a confusing narrative or forge a connection with the herd of characters in this dramatically malnourished study guide. Despite TNT’s enviable record with Westerns, “Into the West” (based on the first three chapters) needed a clearer road map and can’t ride into the sunset soon enough.
Overflowing with symbolism, William Mastrosimone’s original story plods along on parallel tracks, as the Wheelers — a family of Virginia wheelwrights — venture west from Virginia in 1825, while the Lakota tribe grapples with the arrival of white settlers. Gradually, the interlocking tale of the two families will unfold over 65 years through a sprawling cast, often with different actors playing the same character at different points in time.
Any similarity to “Roots,” however, is quickly banished by the stiff narration and muddled structure, which, oscillating back and forth between the whites and Native Americans, can be harder to track than a lone buffalo on the open range.
At the core initially is Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle), who impulsively leaves home to pursue wealth in the beaver trade. After a series of grisly (and even grizzly) adventures he rescues and weds Thunder Heart Woman (Tonantzin Carmelo), a Lakota lass whose first husband meets a brutal end.
In part two, Jacob, his wife and their growing brood return to Virginia, but not for long, as various Wheelers (with others played by Skeet Ulrich, Jessica Capshaw and Keri Russell) embark to California by wagon train, a trip that highlights the harrowing road pioneers endured. Subsequent installments tackle the madness of the Gold Rush and transcontinental railroad, before culminating in the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Settle, alas, proves a rather bland lead as the rugged adventurer, as is Lakota medicine man Loved by the Buffalo (first Simon R. Baker, then George Leach), who spends considerable time communing with a dead relative about whites overrunning the plains.
There are echoes here of “Dances With Wolves,” “How the West Was Won” and “Little Big Man,” but to little avail. Characters come and go with scant rhyme or reason, as the notion of illustrating history through multigenerational dynasties only works if the audience can follow those family trees without consulting the printed version that TNT provided critics.
Technically, this is a first-class production — beautifully shot by Alan Caso and William Wages and lushly scored by Geoff Zanelli. Anyone lacking an inordinate commitment to the period, though, will have difficulty staying engaged by those scenic encounters and what’s being said over the musical flourishes, despite TNT’s “triple-play” strategy of repeating each episode throughout the weekend.
Native American lore has certainly been neglected in dominant cinematic images of the West, but attempting to rectify that deficiency without offending anyone is a poor creative prescription for such an undertaking. Indeed, viewing just half of “Into the West,” I concluded that all 12 hours later, my Indian name would probably be Bored by the Limited Series.