As producer Bill Wittliff remembers, Lonesome Dove had no chances of being a success, neither with the viewers nor the critics. At that time, in 1989 when the western mini-series aired, the western genre was dead and gone. At the same time, what worked even less than westerns were the TV miniseries – so you can imagine the awe of everybody involved when Lonesome Dove attracted the viewers and then was nominated at 18 Primetime Emmy Awards.
So it worked, despite everything that was against it. But this success shouldn’t be considered to be derived just from the success of the book. The leads were perfectly chosen, even if they didn’t look at all how Larry McMurtry (the book’s writer) envisioned them – as he said, he didn’t even watch the entire series because of this.
Obviously, some changes were made to better fit the requirements of a television mini-series. However, all the period-details were captured perfectly, thus describing the life on the frontier. Lonesome Dove placed the viewer in those times, as an uninvolved observatory.
But this was much more than a simple reiteration on the past times. This was also a character study which showed how the lives of the people unfolded. It is as if discovering who these characters really were (western usually presented the cowboys’ lives from a single perspective). Of course, they were the rock-hard men that tamed the west.
But they were also men that had lived past their times, and their present questions about life were intimately derived from then. So, when one asks the other if what they did as young men was really necessary, you know that a new type of western was being born (much like we saw in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, this is a country for old men too, if I may say so).
Ultimately, the life on the frontier isn’t just about shooting guns and driving cattle. I can say that it is about a constant redefining of one’s self.
So there is a bit of bitter taste in the end. The only thing that is certain at some point is just a long-lasting friendship – otherwise, all is lost.