I’ve given History channel grief over recent years for producing shows that are less and less connected with actual history, so credit where due: Hatfields & McCoys, the miniseries that debuted last night, is at least on-brand. It’s also, in a meta sense, evocative of a long-simmering family feud in itself: relentless, seemingly endless, fixated on small details and ultimately grim and furious to little purpose.
Watching the screeners earlier, I couldn’t find much to fault technically with the production, which rooted the Kentucky–West Virginia clans’ battle in the Civil War, and refused to sugarcoat either the violence or the petty vindictiveness that drove it on and on and on. The leading roles are broadly well-cast, conveying a sense of real people, not historical dress-up types, driven by rough lives and clinging to their grievances even as they feel their weight dragging them into oblivion. (Between the two leads, I did feel that Bill Paxton’s haunted, principle-driven Randall McCoy was more intriguing and accessible than Kevin Costner’s stony, calculating Devil Anse Hatfield.) But there’s little depth or insight to justify this gloomy retelling’s length, except, perhaps, to re-create a sympathetic when-will-this-madness-end sensation; it feels as if the story was tailored to the time slot rather than vice-versa.
There was one side benefit to watching the three nights of the miniseries, however. In the process of “research” (i.e., reading the Wikipedia entry on the Hatfields and the McCoys, I was reminded of a nugget of game-show history from my youth: in 1979, Richard Dawson’s Family Feud brought together the surviving descendents of the two clans to compete in a weeklong special, complete with prop guns, old-timey getup and a pig.
Actually, here’s something I’d watch: a TV movie, a la HBO’s Cinema Verite, about the making of that Family Feud special. The game-show producers cajoling and enticing the representatives to trade on their families’ bloody history for syndicated TV; the competitors getting outfitted with theme-park-Appalachian costumes and introducing their “kissin’ cousins” while Dawson croons the Green Acres theme; the music-career ambitions of the McCoy patriarch, who presents Dawson with an album of the family’s music; the way time, money and the media-entertainment complex transmute tragedy into diversion, right down to the cartoon-gunshot sounds used for the ring-in buzzer for the Feud special.
In the excerpt above, the families are asked to guess “What most people don’t get enough of.” Among the top answers in the survey—much as was the case in the 1800s—were “money” and “love.”
Survey says it could be much a more interesting movie. In the meantime, what did you think of the miniseries?