Saturday, July 21, 2018

I Really Don't Like Westerns. Here's One Worth Watching.

I don't like westerns. Bonanza and Gunsmoke had no appeal to me when I was growing up and they still don't. Please don't get me started on the treatment of Native Americans in most westerns. The portrayal in movies and on most television programs was severely whitewashed to say the least. In recent years westerns were almost completely out of favor which is fine with me.

Despite this I recently watched a short lived western TV series which was made in Canada and aired in 2014-2015 called Strange Empire. Not only that, I'm trying to convince my best friend (who also dislikes westerns) to check it out. Yes, it's that good. There are only 13 episodes because ratings were microscopic in both the U.S. and Canada. Most people I know have never heard of it. Forget what you think you know about westerns. This isn't anything like that.

I originally became interested because it stars Cara Gee who currently plays Camina Drummer on The Expanse. I love her portrayal of the character and the strength she brings to the role. Strange Empire was her role before that, and from what I read her performance in the series directly lead to not only her casting on The Expanse, but a newly expanded character for Drummer, which is actually a composite of several characters in the books.

Then there is the little fact that Cara Gee's heritage/ethnicity is Ojibwe. I expected the treatment of First Nations/native people had to be different from the old time westerns. There is also a transgendered character, though he is never called that because 1869. One of the main characters is autistic, though she is never called that because 1869. OK, so I was curious, at least curious enough to try it. It's currently available on Amazon Video or on DVD.

There is no whitewash in Strange Empire. The show is the darkest, most incredibly grim thing I have ever watched. In the probably realistic portrayal of life in Montana and Alberta in 1869 we see rampant racism, theft, murder, rape, oh, and yes, a bit of the genocide of native people. If you don't have a strong stomach you may not want to watch it. The body count in most episodes is horrendous. Despite all of the horror that would normally have me reaching or even running for the remote to turn it off the story is compelling. It draws you in and doesn't let go.

This is from a review of the first episode:
"Set in 1869 along the Montana/Alberta border, Strange Empire starts with two dead babies and a graveside wedding...

A fun romp this is not, but it is a rich exploration of a time and place we think we’re familiar with — our own country, our own history. We’re wrong.

Some of the preliminary publicity said the men have disappeared, leaving the women to fight for survival. This is true in the sense that the cult members of Jonestown disappeared, or the Donner party got a little peckish, or the dog of your childhood went to live on a farm. Some of the men survived, some have not yet been found, but most are quite dead."
Dark doesn't even begin to describe it. I won't share more because spoilers are no fun. I know most anyone who reads this probably hasn't seen the series.

The crazy thing is that the many science fiction fans among my friends will recognize a lot of the cast. Melissa Farman (Lost) and Tattiawna Jones (The Handmaid's Tale) are Cara Gee's costars. Terry Chen (The Expanse, Continuum) and Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, Dollhouse) both have regular roles. Oh, and did I mention that a lot of the show is set in Janestown? No relation to Jaynestown in Firefly.

Here is a trailer: