Near the end of Texas Rising’s fourth hour, General Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) tells his ragtag troops, “follow me a little longer down this twisted, bloody road.” It’s a daunting proposition, not only for them, but for viewers as well. History’s 5-night, 10-hour miniseries (expanded from an original 8) is a hugely ambitious and unwieldy mishmash of tone and genre. It picks up just after the fall of the Alamo in 1836, and weaves together a myriad of tales that revolve around the battles between Houston’s band of soldiers and rangers, and Santa Anna’s (Olivier Martinez) Mexican army.
The miniseries’ director, Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields) saturates the arid landscape with sepia tones, dust, and death. In fact, many things about Texas Rising’s aesthetics feel wonderfully old school, something akin to Lonesome Dove, although it never matches that epic’s taught pacing and whip-smart dialogue and charm.
Once one gets immersed in it, though, there is a certain kind of pull that Texas Rising begins to exert (even if it’s just to see who will make a cameo next — truly, the cast is extraordinarily huge). Fans of Westerns will appreciate the horses galloping across the range, arrows and bullets and hatchets flying back and forth during battle, and the staid code of ethics that bound together men of otherwise questionable company, as they begin to form the Texas Rangers.
The plot is a little less sure of itself. The miniseries more or less focuses on Houston and those around him, giving some great opportunities for bit parts to Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a wise and partially deaf ranger, Jeremy Davies as a rapscallion who provides some gallows humor, and and almost completely unrecognizable Crispin Glover as one of the leaders of a mutiny against Houston.
Also nearly unrecognizable is Ray Liotta, who lurks in the back of many scenes as a kind of wild man, eventually revealing himself to the others as a “son of the devil,” before taking off again. The miniseries is a revolving door of talent (which it is not afraid to kill off quickly and gruesomely); the problem is, there’s not enough material for most to make much of an impression. Or in the case of Brendan Fraser’s odd portrayal, he makes a definite impression. It just doesn’t fit with anything happening around him.
Texas Rising’s many minor characters infuse the series with humor and interest, though many are gone soon after they arrive. They are shallow teases for what could have made for fascinating stories, which highlight the series’ main weakness: it needs a tighter focus. With its sprawling cast and disparate arcs (which don’t start to even remotely come together until the fourth hour), the script is a kitchen sink approach to the story of “Texian” independent, one that feels like a missed opportunity to delve deeper.
However, the series also has a bizarre humor to it that is juxtaposed oddly (and yet, kind of wonderfully) with some truly grotesque scenes of the wounded, dying, and definitely dead. (Women and children and not spared from this, like in one scene where two travelers encounter a young thief with her eyes pecked out by crows). Again, it makes Texas Rising feel like a Western from the 60s or 70s, and not more modern fare.
That old-school approach, though, means that the series’ non-white characters tend to get left in the dust. Mexican army members are mostly drones, and any officers who make appearances are one-dimensional. The exception is Martinez’s mustache-twirler Santa Anna, whose flamboyance goes too far in the other direction, as if he’s over compensating for the lack of narratives focusing on anyone else from his troop. (This is also the say nothing of the poor Comanche characters who are, as always, completely marginalized). Emily West (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), the Yellow Rose of Texas, also lamentably gets stuck with some of the miniseries’ worst lines.
History has not had a epic event series really land with audiences since 2012 Hatfields and McCoys. (This past winter’s Sons of Liberty miniseries was thoroughly modern and thoroughly unexceptional). Whether or not Texas Rising will become appointment television is uncertain, but there’s something refreshing about its oddball approach, ungainly though it is. Regrettably, the script can’t keep up with the miniseries’ strong cast (who seem like they’re having a blast, at least) and grand stage, and it leaves Texas Rising both overstuffed and undercooked. It’s certainly a spectacle, though not perhaps the kind History wants it to be.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
Texas Rising premieres on Memorial Day Monday, May 25th at 9 p.m. It will continue Tuesday for another two hours starting at 9 p.m., before returning to its regular Monday night at 9 p.m. slot for the remainder of its episodes.