Is America ready for a modern-day cowboy who's strong, relatively silent, morally upright and ethically unchallenged? Are viewers prepared to meet Walt Longmire?
In decades past, Westerns were a TV staple. But Matt Dillon rode off into the "Gunsmoke" sunset 37 years ago, and antiheroes now rule the airwaves. Marshal Dillon wouldn't have known what to make of Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, Gregory House and so many of the men who populate 21st-century TV.
"Longmire" executive producer Greer Shephard ("The Closer," "Nip/Tuck") said the idea behind the new A&E drama was "to provide an antidote to the flood of antiheroes that have saturated the marketplace for the past decade. We wanted to return to the airwaves a populist, classic, romantic, American hero in the vein of Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne."
They found him in Craig Johnson's Longmire novels. Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) is a Wyoming sheriff a man of few words and "moral steadfastness," Shephard said. "That integrity and that honesty, those are tent poles of the classic American cowboy. And they remain as true in Walt Longmire as all of his predecessors in that genre."
Longmire isn't perfect. Since the death of his wife a year earlier, Walt has struggled to get his life back on track. He comes around when, in the premiere of "Longmire," he deals with a murder investigation.
And while rural Wyoming is far different from the big cities where most TV crime dramas are set, Longmire faces modern problems. He's got a hotshot young deputy, Victoria "Vic" Moretti (Katee Sackhoff, "Battlestar Galactica"), who recently arrived from Philadelphia. Another deputy, Branch Connolly (Bailey Chase, "Saving Grace"), not only wants to modernize the department but is running against his boss.
But "Longmire" also harks back to a different era.
"There's something very, very reassuring about the nobility of this type of archetype that we felt the American public needed in these really difficult times," Shephard said. "Nobody has touched this genre for a while."
And Westerns tend to be period pieces; "Longmire" is contemporary.
Shot on location in New Mexico, the show captures the spirit of the wide-open spaces in Wyoming. And Taylor an Australian actor best known in this country for his role as Agent Jones in "The Matrix" reminds his co-stars of the classic TV cowboy hero.
"This guy is like a Matt Dillon for the 21st century," said Lou Diamond Phillips, who co-stars as Longmire's friend Henry Standing Bear. "He just wears it like an old leather jacket."
Shephard adds: "Robert feels like he's sprung from the soil of Wyoming."
Walt Longmire may share qualities with Matt Dillon, but he's his own man.
"It's just the way he lives his life," Taylor said. "It is that kind of Western stoicism and decency and honesty and willingness to just carry your load and help other people carry theirs. And that's what I really like about the guy."
The pilot episode of "Longmire" premieres Sunday at 11 p.m. on A&E. It repeats Sunday at 11:59 p.m.; Monday at 3:01 and 4 a.m.; Wednesday at 12:01 and 4:02 a.m.; Friday at 12:01 a.m., 4:02 a.m. and 3 p.m.; Saturday at 6 p.m.; and Sunday, June 10, at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.