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SXSW TV Review: ‘The Son’ on AMC, Starring Pierce Brosnan

Variety logo Variety 3/13/2017 Ira Madison III
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If you’re looking for yet another show centered around a morally grey white man with a dark past, “The Son” might be right up your alley. Those who want something more original or fresh in the drama arena are likely to end up looking elsewhere. 

“The Son” follows in the footsteps of AMC’s previous antiheroes: Pierce Brosnan’s character, Eli McCullough, isn’t dissimilar from Don Draper “(Mad Men”), Walter White (“Breaking Bad”), and Joe MacMillan (“Halt and Catch Fire”). But McCullough is exasperatingly unlikable at every turn, and surrounded by countless characters that lack purpose or personality.

The sprawling drama is based on the acclaimed Philipp Meyer novel of the same name, taking us from young McCullough’s capture by Apaches in 1849 Texas to 60 years later, when he’s the ruthless owner of a cattle ranch. His distaste for Mexicans and penchant for torturing his enemies is juxtaposed with the idealism of his youngest son, Pete. The McCulloughs have a large family, and much of the initial conflict centers on their disputes with the García family, some of whom wish to return Texas to its rightful Mexican ownership. Blood, gunfire, and explosions soon follow, but with a tepid pace that seems drawn out due to “The Son’s” insistence that it’s a prestige drama.

If the mechanics of “The Son” seem awfully familiar, it’s because it seems poised to be a sudsy primetime drama in the vein of “Dallas” or “Dynasty,” with feuding families, love triangles, and snappy one-liners. But the series strays away from anything that could be considered soap opera-adjacent or simply fun. Brosnan’s McCullough is mostly miserable in both time periods, whether he’s being abused by the Apaches who’ve kidnapped him or ordering the deaths of Mexicans who want to liberate their land from him.

McCullough’s villainy is certainly over the top enough to make him a mustache-twirling villain a la J.R. Ewing, especially with a fantastic actor like Brosnan in the role. But he rules South Texas with an iron, all-powerful fist, and any characters who stand up to him are sure to lose. McCullough’s tale is one of rags to riches, and one of a fiercely protective son descended from an amoral father and grandfather, but his journey doesn’t feel particularly new in the antihero genre, nor does it feel fresh in the realm of Westerns.

Westerns have had quite a comeback recently, with HBO’s “Westworld” and the critically acclaimed X-Men spin-off “Logan.” The difference is, while those series present original takes on the Western through the use of robots and mutants, “The Son” feels far too familiar. Native American and Mexican characters feel ancillary to the struggles of a well-to-do white family, as has been the case in just about every Western since “Stagecoach.”

For AMC, which boldly dove into the genre world with “The Walking Dead” to great success, it’s unfortunate that they haven’t quite figured out how to master the Western. “The Son” isn’t as much of a sodden disappointment as the network’s previous offering in the genre, “Hell on Wheels,” but it’s certainly not up to par with the best that AMC has had to offer. Perhaps a harder-edged Western, something in the vein of a blood-and-guts serial like “The Walking Dead,” might’ve been a more satisfying series to watch. Better yet, a Western with a perspective we haven’t seen — the Native American one, the Mexican one, the female-fronted one — would have provided new insight into a genre that often repeats itself.

Even if the viewer can ignore the familiar beats of the story, the only well-drawn characters are McCullough and his son, Pete. Everyone else contains scraps of traditional Western archetypes, but they aren’t fully realized as characters we should care about. Chances are, if you recognize the archetypes, you’ll recognize another Western you’d much rather watch instead of “The Son.”

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