PBS' Mystery, the renowned British-oriented series that brought us such great characters as Poirot and Inspector Morse, has been in the backshop at public television the last year getting an overhaul intended to make it more relevant to American audiences. The new version debuts tomorrow night with Skinwalkers, a crime drama based on the Navajo police novel by Tony Hillerman.
Forget Oxford's majestic spires, Ivy-covered walls and Morse's beloved Jaguar. This is the dusty, High Plains of the American Southwest and the Jeep.
And, let's get right to the cultural heart of the matter: This is about PBS replacing mostly male, white European images of privilege, like Morse, with American people of color, in this case, Native American detectives. This is the stuff of which culture wars are made, as one person's sense of relevance is another's idea of political correctness.
How we feel about the politics of a production like this invariably colors our feelings toward it as drama. It is only natural to be inclined to like that which celebrates us and our values. The problem for public television is in trying to serve all the different "us" groups that make up the U.S. today.
Skinwalkers opens with a bloody bang, as an older Native American man alone in his truck at night is savagely attacked and killed by something that seems more demonic than human. That would be a skinwalker, a demon of Navajo legend that can change from human to animal form and kill with frightening fury.
Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi), the older and more assimilated of the two Tribal Police investigators, wants to focus on facts in his investigation, not talk of supernatural forces and curses. Officer Jim Chee (Adam Beach), an FBI Academy graduate, is training in his spare time to be a traditional Navajo healer, a medicine man. He's a believer rediscovering his roots. This is our new Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis.
There is nothing particularly clever about the plotting of the mystery as done by screenwriter James Redford, son of executive producer Robert Redford, in adapting Hillerman's novel. The big change: In the novel, all the murders have occurred at the start of the book, while the film strings them out to try and create suspense.
This device is very TV-ish, in a bad sense. Redford has also added Internet and cell phone technology, along with an examination of gang culture on the reservation, to make the 1986 book more 2002. I have no problem with that.
But television mysteries live and die by leading characters more than they do the story, and that's my biggest complaint about Skinwalkers: I just don't know enough about Leaphorn to care. Whereas Morse had all sorts of flaws and some serious psychic wounding, Leaphorn's only flaw appears to be a certain lack of social grace.
Part of the problem is the minimalist approach both in script and performance to Leaphorn. The two-hour film is full of long silences in which the camera broods on Leaphorn while we are supposed to be imagining what's going on inside his head. But I don't know enough about the guy to imagine anything.
I know what PBS is trying to add to American television with characters like Leaphorn, and I applaud it. I just wish the gain in sociology would not have been accompanied by such a decline in artistry. The nicest thing I can say is maybe Leaphorn will grow on me.
Skinwalkers airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).
Two of a kind
Martin and Lewis, tomorrow night's CBS movie about the 10-year show-biz relationship between singer Dean Martin and comedian Jerry Lewis, is the work of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. They are the brilliant producing team that brought us such terrific TV films as Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, Annie and Cinderella.
They are not so brilliant this time out.
Martin and Lewis is not a bad film, thanks in large part to one great casting choice: getting Jeremy Northam (Gosford Park) to play Martin, the hard-drinking crooner, perhaps most remembered for his years with a group of Las Vegas buddies headlined by Frank Sinatra that came to be known as the Rat Pack.
Before those days, though, Martin teamed with Lewis, a manic comic presence, to headline in nightclubs, films and early television. They broke up in 1956 in a bitter split that cost both performers tens of millions of dollars.
The thing that is too often forgotten about Martin these days is that he could really, really sing a love ballad well. You've heard the expression "bedroom eyes," well, he had a bedroom voice, and it was the secret of his popularity with women. For men, he became an important symbol of post-war masculinity.
Northam's lip-synch performance suggests all of that. The actor loses himself in the song and the Martin voice, while using his body, and especially his hips, to suggest the easygoing sensuality of the Martin persona. When Northam is onstage as Martin signing, Martin and Lewis is fine.