Patrick Stewart is the whole show in “King of Texas,” TNT’s ranch-hand rendition of “King Lear.” Sporting beautiful gray locks, a robust beard and heavy-duty machismo, Stewart brings to a desperate tyrant madness and method, using his Picard-esque wisdom to bring everyone around him onto higher ground. Challenging anyone’s notion that exec producer Robert Halmi only scores when given an arsenal of special effects, project shrewdly maintains all of the play’s themes — dysfunction, jealousy, deceit — while nicely crafting the title character’s Quixotic journey.
Solidifying his relationship with the cabler — he starred in its fine 1999 version of “A Christmas Carol” — Stewart, who shares exec producing duties, is the ideal Lear: dictatorial and distressed, made soft by the forced pronouncement of love by his three bitter daughters. It’s a role American actors might have taken on with less subtlety, with gravelly tones and broad gestures shaping the cartoonish behavior of a ruler who loses his influence.
The setting here is completely appropriate. Texas in the 1840s stood alone as a republic, and its settlers’ main goal was to secure as much land from Mexico as possible. Enter John Lear (Stewart), a tycoon who divvies up his fortune after his offspring, who revile him, are forced to become his biggest fans. Susannah (Marcia Gay Harden) is the den mother, the leader of sorts who ultimately proves as ruthless and callous as the man she always despised. Middle daughter Rebecca (Lauren Holly) is caught between her husband, Highsmith (Patrick Bergin), and her dad; and Claudia (Julie Cox) is the naive waif who rejects the gift but eventually takes John in even though she’s falling for Menchaca (Steven Bauer), the family’s primary foe.
The infighting hits a peak after the terrain is dispersed. The greed brigade is led by Highsmith and Emmet (Matt Letscher), a handsome neighbor who catches Susannah’s and Rebecca’s attention while their spouses are preoccupied with Menchaca’s surrender.
Providing voices of reason throughout the dissension are radically diverse personalities. Westover (Roy Scheider) is Lear’s longtime friend and fellow veteran, a gentle soul who warns Menchaca about the attack in order to save Claudia, and ex-slave Rip (David Alan Grier), is Lear’s loyal yes-man, the single person who can tell Lear the truth or make him laugh.
Director Uli Edel (“The Mists of Avalon”) and scribe Stephen Harrigan (mini “Cleopatra”) get exactly what makes Shakespeare’s work accessible as well as the fundamental entertainment value of an old-fashioned Western. They’ve created a 19th-century wherein battle lines are drawn between nationals and war heroes, while preserving the Bard’s stage mechanics and theatrical intent. Sole glaring problem is the pace of television made-fors; the pivotal dialogue, in this case the women’s declaration of adoration, is rushed and nearly ruined.
But it all comes back to Stewart. In a powerhouse performance that lifts every scene, he preens without pretension as the empire crumbles. The tantrums are there, but Stewart also adds a silent, spiritual dimension that is uniquely his; he’s abusive but generous, careless but completely in control. Stewart’s Lear really is psychotic, and he’s captivating.
Cast is across-the-board strong, with kudos to Grier, who’s known strictly for comedy and rarely appears in such projects. Among the daughters, it’s Harden who has the most to do; as dad slides deeper into lunacy, she’s the one tightening the screws despite a delicate demeanor. Scheider and Liam Waite as his bum son are tops among a potent lineup of second-hand cowboys.
The parched plains of Pachuca, Tlaxcla and Durango, Mexico, are easy on the eyes, as is Paul Elliot’s beautiful lensing. The era’s class structure is fittingly expressed by Penny V. Hadfield’s fine production design, which is neither too flashy or too dull.