One of television's persistent puzzles is why the United States, which essentially invented the medium, has taken so long to master televised high narrative. For 30 years, the British have been churning out Masterpiece Theatre miniseries that satisfy the inner soap fan while also teasing the intellect. Only in the last few years, however, with shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, have Americans begun to play and win that game.
PBS, the American conduit for most of that highbrow British fare, has recently made a belated bid to create a thought-provoking narrative of its own. Skinwalkers is the first American-produced entry into the network's popular Mystery series. The good news is that Skinwalkers is a stylish and absorbing entry, a mark of how far American narrative TV has come -- but simultaneously a reminder of how far we have to go.
Skinwalkers is a 90-minute dramatization of a mystery by New Mexico journalist and author Tony Hillerman, whose novels recount the adventures of two tribal police officers, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, fighting crime on the huge Navajo Indian reservation of the Southwest. Produced by Robert Redford and written by his son Jamie, Skinwalkers (the word is a Navajo term for "witch") is otherwise almost entirely a Native American show. (It's directed by Smoke Signals' Chris Eyre, who's of Cheyenne and Arapaho descent.) Perhaps for this reason, the film avoids the greatest single curse that's afflicted prior mainstream projects about American Indians (itself only one example of the industry's general problem in dramatizing stories about minorities): the search for the Great White Character whom audiences can identify with. (Think of Alec Baldwin in Ghosts of Mississippi, or for that matter, Nicholas Cage in Windtalkers). Skinwalkers depicts Navajos -- the second most numerous of America's tribes -- interacting among themselves, creating a life in which white people are at best a distant rumor.
The second danger of white-made American Indian movies, of course, is the desire to romanticize and pity "the red man." We have come a long way since John Ford's demonic Apaches, but Kevin Costner's angelic Sioux were pure white artifacts as well. Much of what attracts whites to American Indian themes -- nostalgia for a simpler life, reverence for an Emersonian Nature -- is simply not present in the messy but infinitely more interesting drama of life among Native people today. Laments for the "vanishing American" are simply beside the point; Indians aren't going anywhere. Despite poverty, substance abuse and crime, the story of 21st-century Indian country is often one of ambiguous triumph.
In this area, Skinwalkers shines. Redford and Eyre use the details of reservation life to present the characters with dilemmas that have little to do with the past and everything to do with today. At the same time, they present a convincing and genuinely puzzling whodunit. For this they deserve a great deal of credit, because Hillerman's books, entertaining as they are, have always been long on atmosphere and short on plot. In the novel Skinwalkers, for example, we never learn who committed the crimes. The actual identity of the murderer was always subordinate to the wonder of the desert, which works well on the page but dies on the small screen.
Largely scrapping the plot of the novel, Skinwalkers presents the case as a conflict within Navajo society and skillfully dramatizes the intra-Indian conflicts found on every reservation I have visited: urban Native Americans versus reservation people, "traditionals" versus "progressives," children adopted by whites and now seeking their heritage (like director Eyre, who was born on the reservation but grew up in a white household) versus those who never left. And the film does not blink at showing the underside of reservation life -- the drug abuse, alcoholism, casual violence and petty crime that derail the lives of many young Indians.
The filmmakers also succeed because they have revamped Hillerman's characters. In print, Joe Leaphorn was a salty, solitary reservation veteran; his skepticism about Navajo religion never rang quite true. PBS' Leaphorn (played by Wes Studi, a Cherokee) is a child of the city, who has come to the reservation to humor his ailing wife, Emma (resplendently portrayed by Sheila Tousey, a Menominee-Stockbridge). Hillerman's Jim Chee was a mournful misfit, craving Leaphorn's approval; in this version of Skinwalkers, Chee (Windtalkers' Adam Beach, a Canadian-born Salteaux) is more at ease with himself and challenges Leaphorn when the latter misunderstands traditional Navajo ways.
Together, Leaphorn and Chee must find out who is killing the reservation's old-time medicine men. At the same time, they must deal with tangled personal lives -- Emma's cancer and Chee's attraction to the Harvard-educated defense lawyer Janet Peete (Alex Rice, a Mohawk). Chee, meanwhile, is studying traditional medicine, but he's also a computer geek; Leaphorn, for his part, is trying hard to please Emma by attempting vainly to feel at home on the reservation. The personal plots are unresolved -- plenty of intrigue to play out in possible future installments -- but the mystery comes to a satisfying conclusion.
Though the producers don't mention it in their publicity packages, Skinwalkers is not the first attempt to render Leaphorn and Chee on screen. In 1991, Redford produced The Dark Wind, a rather dismal theatrical release starring Lou Diamond Phillips (who was born in the Philippines but is one-eighth Cherokee) as Chee. In The Dark Wind, the two Indian detectives are reticent to the point of catatonia, and they have no personal lives to speak of. The real hero is the landscape, and the villains are whites who, like Milton's Satan, have brought evil into the red man's Eden.
PBS' Skinwalkers redeems the idea of filming the Hillerman books. But in its success lies an irony: For all its skill and heart, the film follows the format of a British mystery to a T (Studi's Leaphorn, in fact, sometimes seems a bit like a Native American answer to the flamboyantly grouchy Inspector Morse). There is none of the formal experimentation that makes, say, The Sopranos, so exhilarating. And beyond that, there is no definite plan for a sequel as yet. The Brits crank these things out by the dozen every year; in the homeland of TV, we still have much to learn.
Garrett Epps is an associate professor of law at the University of Oregon. He writes regularly about popular culture for TAP Online.