When it premiered in February 1989, Lonesome Dove arrived as the most pleasant sort of shock. Without any advance hype, this was not only a first-rate made-for-television movie (a rarity) but also a remarkably old-fashioned new Western (a miracle). Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, as ex-Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, both deployed a laconic purity unusual as an acting strategy on the small screen. Simon Wincer directed Dove’s eight hours with the hard-boiled stylization of an Old West detective story. Lonesome Dove, winner of seven Emmys and a Peabody Award, and—it is immensely satisfying to point out—one of the most profoundly violent TV films ever made, seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime fluke. This is a feeling only confirmed by return to lonesome dove (CBS, Nov. 14 and 16, 9-11 p.m.; concludes Nov. 18, 8-11 p.m.), a seven-hour sequel that, while an honest and often entertaining piece of work, serves primarily to mar our memories of the original.
The central problem with Return to Lonesome Dove is apparent the moment Woodrow Call lopes onto the screen: Tommy Lee Jones, busy cultivating a smashingly revitalized film career (JFK, Under Siege, The Fugitive), declined to reprise his role, and it went to Jon Voight. Now, one of the great pleasures of the first Dove was the way Jones invested Call with a slit-eyed wryness that undercut the deep melancholy of his aging Ranger captain. But Voight—skilled, earnest, and stolid in his best films, such as Midnight Cowboy and Conrack—has never been known for his sense of humor, wry or otherwise. His interpretation of Call is, from the start, a lump of moroseness, grim and forbidding.
Watching Voight, you feel like one of the overworked cowboys under his pitiless command as he herds a passel of wild mustangs home to his ranch in Montana. Duvall’s Gus McCrae died in the first Dove, and so Call has to carry most of the sequel’s heroic weight. On Voight, that burden is all too tiresomely obvious. (Not the least of Voight’s problems is that, in a neatly clipped beard, he looks like Kenny Rogers on Valium.)
Lonesome Dove was based on Larry McMurtry’s best-selling 1985 novel, of course, but on Return, McMurtry served only as a consultant to a teleplay by John Wilder (Spenser: For Hire). (The next time you see a McMurtry Western project on TV, it will most likely be his adaptation of his own recently published Dove sequel, Streets of Laredo.) Wilder has sought to reproduce the Call-McCrae friendship by hooking Woodrow up in this new adventure with another ex-Ranger, Gideon Walker, played by William Petersen (Manhunter). A daring, womanizing rake, Walker is supposed to provide a sparky contrast to , Call, but the electricity never provides much of an emotional jolt: These boys never really bond. Faring better is Barbara Hershey, who has the formidable task of replacing Anjelica Huston in the role of the indomitable frontierswoman Clara Allen. Hershey is so utterly different from Huston that she’s able to take over the character quickly, and her Clara conducts a nicely discreet romance with Walker that is one of Return’s better subplots.
The most prominent actor to reprise his original role is Rick Schroder as the perennially dewy-eyed Newt Dobbs. Return works up a love interest for Newt—Reese Witherspoon as the flirtatious wife of a ranch owner—but doesn’t develop this character beyond the sad puppy he was the first go-round. By contrast, the liveliest newcomer to this saga is also Return’s only happy surprise: A plump, grizzled Oliver Reed has a great time playing that ranch owner, a very mean dude with a scratchy Scottish accent and an itchy trigger finger.
Dove II relies far too much on what Dove I used as window dressing: long, deep shots of rolling farmland and dusty desert. Lonesome Dove’s director of photography, Douglas Milsome, has been bumped up to second-unit director here, and it’s clear that, in the absence of vivid atmosphere in the script, Milsome was prevailed upon to gussy up the proceedings. He did, but the result serves to emphasize the ultimate pointlessness of this whole enterprise. Everything that was complicated and implied in Lonesome Dove—the subtle, shifting relationships between the main characters, their crisscrossing pasts—is tidied up, spelled out, and tediously resolved in Return. Stick around for seven hours and you’ll find that this is a perfectly decent Western; you might even shed a tear or two. But you’ll also know that, when it’s finished, a grand piece of TV mythmaking has been reduced to a horse opera. C+