What has Rachel Griffiths been smoking in CBS' "Comanche Moon"? Banana peels? Seriously, if this miniseries prequel to "Lonesome Dove" weren't so durn disappointing, pardner, I'd urge you to watch just so you can see the way she parades around the phony 1850s cowboy sets like Blanche DuBois on steroids. As if avenging her years of existential angst on "Six Feet Under" and "Brothers & Sisters," Griffiths lets loose with a camp performance as a racist Jezebel that belongs in the TV Trash Hall of Fame.
With orange hair flowing down - far enough, in one balcony scene, to cover her bare breasts - Griffiths plays Inez Scull, the wife of Val Kilmer's Captain Inish Scull of the Texas Rangers. Left for long stretch es by her husband, who's captive to a Mexican bandit during much of "Comanche Moon," she seduces the young men of Austin, Texas, corrupts them, then spits them out like cherry pits. In the General Store, testing whips she plans to employ on her slaves, humming at an unseemly volume, she is a spectacle of absurdly broad gestures.
For the first hour of "Comanche Moon," which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Channel 4, it looks as though the three-part miniseries might be a fabulous botch, a smorgasbord of bad acting and Western-movie stereotypes that's awesome in its awfulness. But gradually, the miniseries settles into a more mediocre middle ground that is merely tedious, simplistic, and disjointed, like a six-hour episode of "F Troop" without Larry Storch. The only decent thing: Steve Zahn, who finds the right pitch between comedy and lonesomeness as hard-drinking Ranger Gus McCrae. When he tells Linda Cardellini's Clara, "You're the only woman who's ever really had my heart" in part 3, it's more evocative than it should be thanks to Zahn's touch. If only he hadn't paid a visit to Inez Scull's parlor (or, as Griffiths puts it, her "pah-lah") during a visit home to Austin.
The richer, more lyrical "Lonesome Dove" miniseries from 1989 followed two former Rangers, McCrae and Woodrow Call, on a journey to Montana to start a cattle ranch. Played magnificently by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, the older McCrae and Call were figures of honor and regret, with flaws both eccentric and tragic. "Dove" was based on the first of Larry McMurtry's four-novel saga of the Old West, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986.
The plot of "Comanche Moon," which runs on Tuesday and Wednesday after Sunday's first installment, is inhibited by the fact that it must lead up to "Lonesome Dove" (as well as out of another "Dove" prequel, "Dead Man's Walk"). The miniseries has to serve as an accurate segue vehicle as much as a story in its own right. Unfortunately, "Comanche Moon" feels more like scenes meant to reflect off "Dove" than a coherent narrative about McCrae, Call, and their evolution into captains and leaders. Written by McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the team who won an Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain," the screenplay has been pieced together loosely and without its own human themes. Both "Dove" and "Comanche" were directed by Simon Wincer, but the former miniseries is as grand as the latter is not.
And while Zahn manages to be both an individual and a man who could grow into Duvall's Gus, Karl Urban makes Call into a bland distillation of Jones, all stiffness and grim superiority. The two men ramble across the terrain with their Rangers to protect the frontier from Comanche attack, periodically assisted by the Kickapoo tracker Famous Shoes (David Midthunder), who delivers his geographical news reports with an almost laughable absence of affect. Comanche characters Buffalo Hump (Wes Studi), his son Blue Duck (Adam Beach), and horse thief Kicking Wolf (Jonathan Joss) come into and out of focus with little point as the years pass.
Meanwhile, the action repeatedly returns to the Austin women in the Rangers' lives, including Maggie (Elizabeth Banks), the mother of Call's son, as they head toward their inevitable fates. Cardellini is fine, if wooden, as the sweetheart that McCrae loses, while Banks never quite seems to have located Maggie's personality until the script requires her to cough with significance.
Playing the aristocratic war hero Scull, Kilmer isn't as strangely entertaining as Griffiths, even while he goes over the top after being tortured in a cage and a pit with snakes. He gets to simper and sing and be a bit mad, and he dons both a bald-headed wig and an Albert Einsteinian mop of white hair in the course of the miniseries. But still he's just a far-flung and aimless plot point, another tumbleweed blowing through this long, flat miniseries.