Friday, December 03, 2021

Joe Pickett, on Spectrum

Wyoming is one of the least populated states, but it probably ranks relatively highly when it comes to authors per capita. Not surprisingly, their crime novelists often incorporate neo-western elements, as in Craig Johnson’s Longmire books. C.J. Box’s novels also follow in that tradition (they have horses and sheriffs). His signature character, game warden Joe Pickett is more comfortable around nature than people, so WY should be the best place for him. Unfortunately, he uncovers a thorny mess of trouble in season one of showrunners John Erick Dowdle & Drew Dowdle’s  Joe Pickett, which premieres Monday on Spectrum.

Pickett is still fresh on the job, but he is already notorious for ticketing the governor for fishing without a license. He believes the rules should be enforced, so he is not inclined to look the other way when he catches low-life Ote Keeley poaching. In the resulting scuffle, he temporarily loses his gun to Keeley, before getting it back. Obviously, there is bad blood between them, so Pickett is duly surprised when Keeley rides his horse all the way to Pickett’s yard, to die from the illegally modified arrow shot through his torso.

Although not considered a suspect, the situation is uncomfortable for Pickett, especially because he worries for the safety of his pregnant wife Marybeth and their two daughters. His slightly sleazy predecessor, Vern Dunnegan cautions him to let everything blow over. However, Pickett is too much of a cowboy to resist following up on his own leads, especially when he suspects the lazy sheriff has arrested the wrong man, Nate Romanowski, a rather intimidating survivalist and falconer.

Immediately starting with Pickett’s standoff with Keeley, the pilot episode (directed by John Erick Dowdle) really grabs viewers. It is a tense action sequence, but it viscerally establishes how high the stakes are for both men. Evidently, the mortality rate for game wardens is shockingly high—and you can see why during this sequence.

It also introduces the lingering trauma of Pickett’s difficult childhood, which often rears up in the present for Pickett. We understand right from the beginning why he is so socially awkward. The truth is the Dowdles maybe overdo his angst a bit. It seems like poor Joe can’t even get a cup of Joe without a flashback. Regardless, the restraint and gritty integrity of Michael Dornan’s lead performance provides an impressive foundation for the series.

Dornan also has nice chemistry with Julianna Guill as Marybeth Pickett, who very definitely gets her own identity and stuff to do throughout the first five episodes (out of ten) provided for review. TV veteran Sharon Lawrence diva’s it up quite entertainingly as Pickett’s formerly rich but still snobby mother-in-law. Keeley is not alive for long, but Benjamin Hollingsworth is still terrific portraying him. Mustafa Speaks provides a consistently intriguing presence as the mysterious Romanowski, while Patrick Gallagher serves up all kinds of noir understatement as the somewhat suspicious Sheriff Barnum. However, the real star might be David Alan Grier, who looks like he is having the time of his life in what might be the part of his career, the manipulative, grizzled old Dunnegan.

Pickett is no superman, not even remotely, but he is a hero with the work ethic and values we can root for. He is a dedicated family man, law enforcement officer, and environmentalist. The Dowdles shrewdly mine drama from the ways those roles intersect and conflict. The thriller elements are not revolutionary, but their adaptation of two Box novels smartly marries Americana with hardboiled crime. Enthusiastically recommended,
Joe Pickett premieres this Monday (12/6) on Spectrum (and is slated to hit Paramount+ at a yet to be scheduled later date).