TNT's "Into the West," executive produced by Steven Spielberg, is better than some TV shows and worse than some movies. It's worth watching, but at a total of more than nine hours, it seems like it ought to be a little bit MORE worth watching.
The production values are extremely high, and the pristine beauty of the 19th-century American frontier is re-created magnificently in this story. It spans 70 years and covers the taming of the West from the point of view of both the white man and the Indian (though you can guess who comes out looking worse).
The saga commences in 1825, with parallel stories that do not converge until the end of the first episode. In the West, we have the Lakota tribe, where the focus is on Loved By The Buffalo (George Leach), a young medicine man-in-training who has a disturbing vision of what will eventually befall his people. In the East, there are the Wheelers, a family of, um, wheelers, where youngest son Jacob (Matthew Settle) yearns for a more exciting life. To that end, he heads West with mountain man Jedediah Smith (Josh Brolin), searching for adventure and wisdom.
Over the course of the series, Jacob marries Loved By The Buffalo's sister Thunderheart Woman (Tonantzin Carmelo), thus linking the two stories forever. As the saga unfolds and time passes -- as much as 15 years per episode -- the white man moves farther and farther west and the Native Americans either adapt, fight, or give up.
Through it all, the Wheeler family are our protagonists, particularly Jacob. This is somewhat problematic, given that Matthew Settle is a pleasant but bland actor. When the story relies on his emotions and thoughts, it flags a bit.
But when the story turns to its real point -- a fictionalized account of America's fulfillment of Manifest Destiny -- it's often riveting, always watchable, sometimes surprisingly engrossing. A few scenes of devastation and war are horrific to behold, made all the more sad by our foreknowledge of them. (When we meet Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gen. George Custer, we know it's not going to be pretty.)
American history in the 19th century was a story of expanding freedom, and "Into the West" touches on that theme from several angles. The Indians want to retain their land, while the white settlers want to expand theirs. There's a freed slave (Sean Blakemore) seeking to find his place in the world (the Civil War becomes a factor in Episode 3). We even meet Spaniards in California who desperately want to keep the Easterners from finding the way to their Pacific paradise. Everyone wants their piece of the Earth, even if someone else already has it. "Into the West" puts a human face on it all and tells the story, if not expertly, at least earnestly and with passion.
The six episodes, totaling about 9 hours and 12 minutes of programming (approximately 92 minutes per episode), are kept in a handsome, Old West-looking case. It's actually not all that nice -- just the usual stiff cardboard and such, somewhat less glossy than many sets -- but it has a nice rustic look to it.
The entire thing is made to look like a book, with the "pages" being an inner box within which the actual DVDs are kept. This inner box folds out into three parts, one part being a cover and the other two being where the discs are housed, two on each section. The increasingly common method of overlapping the discs on top of each other is employed, i.e., you can't take out Disc 2 without first taking out Disc 1.
There are two episodes per disc, with the extras on Disc 4.
Each episode begins with a screenshot of a timeline showing the historical events relevant to that episode: Episode 1 shows the years 1824-1838; the Episode 2 timeline covers 1841-1845; and so forth. History is fun!
Each episode also has its own scene index and audio and video setup pages.
One small complaint: The chapter breaks are where the commercials were -- anywhere from 12 to 18 minutes apart. Chapter breaks are much more useful when they're more like five to eight minutes apart, don't you think?
VIDEO: Anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) -- pretty high-quality treatment for a basic-cable miniseries. Some theatrical Hollywood releases don't look this nice on DVD. There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles -- even for the special features, which is both unusual and commendable.
AUDIO: Your choice: Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby Digital 2.0. Both are state-of-the-art. There are no foreign language options for the audio, nor are there any commentaries.
EXTRAS: The big treat here is "The Making of 'Into the West,'" a 38-minute behind-the-scenes documentary with chapters on the historical elements, the directors, the production design, the costumes, and so forth.
The producers and major behind-the-scenes players (including Spielberg, briefly) are interviewed. They generally refer to "Into the West" as a "movie" rather than a miniseries or a TV show, and that's telling: Their attitude seems to have been that they were making a 9-hour movie, not a 6-episode TV series.
There's some of the usual "So-and-So is so brilliant, I'm so lucky to be here" fluff, but mostly it's an informative doc that will enlighten anyone who enjoyed the series.
Next is "The Communication Gap," an interesting mini-doc (13 minutes) about one of the series' major components: The fact that the Native Americans and the white settlers did not speak the same language, and the effort to have the actors playing Indians speak authentic Lakota. Some background on the tribe, including its modern-day status, is given, and we meet the native Lakota speaker who provided on-set dialect coaching.
There's a fairly useless 24-minute feature on the cast of the series, where the major players talk about their characters and how special it was to be in the film, and all that. The usual stuff.
Wanna see Sara McLachlan and Robbie Robertson sing "World on Fire" in an "Into the West"-fused music video? You're in luck.
TNT's commercials for the series are included, and there's a gallery of unspectacular photos. That making-of doc, though, that's good stuff.
Spielberg is the executive producer, and while it's not clear how much direct involvement he had, the story does bear some of his usual marks: decent, good-hearted characters embarking on bold adventures, the women being womanly and the men being manly. But where Spielberg is a master storyteller, the tales being woven in "Into the West" are only so-so. The contents of the DVD set don't do much to elevate the miniseries beyond its status as a good, but not great, piece of work.