Rich Heldenfels

Since 2006, Craig Johnson has turned out a stream of mystery novels about Walt Longmire, a Wyoming sheriff trying to recover from the death of his wife. A&E premieres a series based on the books, Longmire, at 10 p.m. Sunday and the central character is engaging enough to keep me watching past the premiere.

In the pilot, written by Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny (both veterans of The Closer), Longmire — played by Australian actor Robert Taylor — is someone comfortable with the emptiness and silence of his surroundings, refusing for example to spoil the latter by getting a cellphone. But he has soaked up quiet and alcohol for too long. He is just beginning to emerge from his grief, which has been so deep that he has barely functioned at his job. And this has not gone unnoticed by his staff, which includes the new deputy Vic Moretti (Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica) and the veteran Branch Connally (Bailey Chase of Saving Grace), who thinks he can be a lot better sheriff than Longmire.

But Walt’s skills are about to be tested by the discovery of a dead man, shot in a curious way. And the shooting leads Longmire into situations that include some illegal local recreation and an old dispute between Longmire and the local American Indian reservation. (Johnson, by the way, once told Publishers Weekly that “all the Indians I know laugh when people refer to them as Native Americans.”) Even though one of Longmire’s closest friends is an Indian named Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), he is still entangled in old issues of race.

The mystery leads down various paths, some right, some wrong, before reaching a resolution that still was not as entertaining as Longmire himself. He’s rugged but not without compassion or flaws. Taylor is especially good in a scene where Longmire must break the news about the dead man to the man’s wife, and thinks too much about his loss. There are also good dramatic flourishes, such as Longmire’s fixation with litter, and the way that Longmire’s dealing with Connally goes from passive to very aggressive. The series has plenty of room to grow; I left the pilot wanting to know more about all the characters, but especially about Longmire.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.