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The Son - Double Series Premiere - Review

9 Apr 2017

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There are few more ambitious TV series I've seen than AMC's latest drama, The Son. An adaptation of Philipp Meyer's brilliant novel (which I read last year), the series seeks to tell the story of a family-run Texas oil empire across three generations (rather than four, as it is in the novel), thereby exploring the bloody price of power and the violence and amorality out of which modern America was born. That's a huge goal for any TV series, and The Son is probably worth checking out for that reason alone.

The family at the centre of the series is the McCullough's, and in this double premiere the series decides to follow the family through two timelines. One of which is set in 1915, when the family patriarch Eli McCullough (played by Pierce Brosnan, who gives a commanding performance) is struggling to enter the oil business amid tense race relations and an increasingly modern world he no longer recognises.

The other timeline is set in 1849, and follows a young Eli (played by Justified's Jacob Lofland) as he is kidnapped by a tribe of Comanche Indians, and gradually becomes accustomed to their lifestyle and earns their respect. Curiously, the show has decided to, for now, leave out the novel's other major timeline, which follows Eli's great-granddaughter (granddaughter in the show) Jeannie as an old woman, a timeline that proved potent in the novel, giving the story an even more epic sweep.

But I suppose it's understandable that the series has decided to leave that out for now, perhaps thinking that it would all be too much too soon. And this premiere did manage to do a solid job conveying the story's epic sweep. Unfortunately, this premiere got lost in that epic sweep a few times, which may well prove to be the show's biggest obstacle to overcome in future weeks.

This is especially true in the 1915 timeline, which got more screentime than the other, but managed to do less with it. In fairness, this timeline has far more going on, and has a far bigger ensemble, as opposed to the 1849 timeline, which is really just a coming-of-age tale. Brosnan's performance at the center of the 1915 material is riveting (though his Texas accent sounds a bit too Irish at times), but it threatens to overpower the rest of the ensemble, none of whom manage to make much of an impact.

This isn't terrible for some of the characters who received very limited screentime, such as Eli's daughter-in-law Sally, played by The Good Wife's Jess Weixler (so that's where Robyn's been this whole time!), but it isn't exactly comforting that Eli's son Peter (Henry Garrett) failed to make any sort of impact on me at all in this premiere, despite ample screentime in the second hour. Conceptually, the character of Peter is solid, if a little bit unoriginal: a decent man tries to avoid descending down the same violent path as his father. But while Garrett's performance is fine, The Son fails to make the character dramatically engaging. TV has been telling stories of men struggling with their conscience amid a culture of violence since Tony Soprano first graced our screens. With Pete, The Son doesn't look like it will add anything new to that well-worn plot device.

This timeline is slightly more successful with the character Jeannie (played here by Sydney Lucas), and given where the series will go with that character if its given more seasons, that's a good sign. Often times throughout this premiere The Son seemed more concerned with what's going to happen rather than what's happening on the screen right now, but, at least in the case of Jeannie, I'm excited to see what's in store, even if I have to wait a while for the show to get there.

The 1849 material proved far more engaging in this premiere. Nothing in it is groundbreaking, but it's when the series' direction is at its most effective (too much of the 1915 stuff is shot in close-ups, it's only in the flashbacks that the camera is pulled back to let the viewers soak in the landscapes), and the performances of Lofland as Eli and Fargo's Zahn McClarnon as Toshaway, the Comanche who takes Eli under his wing, are strong. This timeline has a nice forward momentum, simply but effectively telling Eli's coming-of-age story. Hopefully the other timeline can take shape fully in the coming weeks.

But while The Son isn't as dramatically engaging as it should be, I'm willing to wait a while to see it figure out how to successfully adapt this story for the screen. But, given that I'm a fan of westerns, my mileage may be greater than many others. I'm just a sucker for stories like this, and I just really dug the vibe that the show established last night. Every detail is specific, the show clearly the work of people who understand its world. And given that Meyer himself is heavily involved in the writing process (he co-wrote the first episode), I'm willing to put my faith in The Son. For now, at least.

Grade: B-