Friday, January 06, 2012

The American (Western) Experience: Billy the Kid

The man who became infamous as Billy the Kid was most likely born right here in New York City. It all starts to make sense now, doesn’t it? New York’s proud native son is profiled in the first of two new western-themed editions of The American Experience (promo here), which premieres on PBS this coming Tuesday.

William Henry McCarty, a.k.a. William H. Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, never really had a father. There was a step-father, but he disappeared shortly after the death of McCarty’s mother. The greatest father-figure of his life was John Tunstall, the English cattleman who employed the Kid when he was already a fugitive. When the rival Murphy-Dolan outfit murdered Tunstall, McCarty and his former colleagues formed the Regulators to dispense some classic frontier justice. The resulting Lincoln County War made the Kid’s reputation.

One hundred forty years after the Kid’s death, everybody wants to be his friend. Amongst the talking heads, only Bill Richardson, the scandal-tarred former New Mexico governor, tactfully reminds viewers McCarty was a “cop killer.” Everyone else sees in McCarty what they want to: a Robin Hood, an ally of marginalized Hispanics, or a simply a young man in need of a sense of belonging. Yet, as an alternative to a stone cold outlaw, McCarty would arguably best be described as a vigilante out to punish a gang of murderers, at least until Governor Lew Ben-Hur Wallace walked away from a deal for McCarty’s testimony.

Regardless, Experience conveys a good sense of the era in general and the specific circumstances that made territorial New Mexico so conducive to the fugitive lifestyle. Employing faceless POV re-enactments, it sometimes resembles an Old West true crime program, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Competently helmed by John Maggio, it also features some fairly big name talent, including Robert Altman-regular Michael Murphy as the voice-over narrator and Pulitzer Prize winning author N. Scott Momaday as one its on-camera experts. Frankly, this is the sort of informative but not too taxing programming the History Channel was built on before it went all-in on reality shows. Indeed, history buffs should definitely enjoy Billy the Kid when it airs Tuesday (1/10) on PBS’s American Experience.