TV has indulged in historical fiction miniseries before, particularly in the 1980s with war dramas such as "North and South" and "The Winds of War" and more recently HBO's "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific."
Now cable's History tries to break into the genre with its second effort -- but the first to air under its banner.
History produced "The Kennedys" miniseries that upset the political family, causing the network to cave to pressure and sell the program to cable's ReelzChannel, where it aired last year.
The descendants of the real families featured in History's newest effort probably don't have the clout to quash "Hatfields & McCoys" (9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday), a three-part, six-hour, decent-at-times miniseries.
This isn't the first time the infamous feud between rival families along the West Virginia-Kentucky border has been turned into entertainment, but it has been a while. Aside from "Hatfields & McCoys: Bad Blood," a straight-to-DVD film starring Christian Slater that's due in stores June 5, the most recent retelling was a 1975 TV movie starring Jack Palance.
History's "Hatfields & McCoys" begins with Devil Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner, "Dances with Wolves") and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) serving together as friends in the Civil War, fighting on behalf of the Confederacy. That friendship fractures when Randall becomes a deserter and grows even more tenuous when Anse's uncle, Jim Vance (Tom Berenger), kills a McCoy.
Written by Ted Mann and Ronald Parker and directed by Kevin Reynolds, who previously directed Mr. Costner in "Waterworld" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Hatfields & McCoys" begins somewhat slowly. It's not always clear who's a Hatfield and who's a McCoy. There are so many members of each family but they all look, more or less, like floppy-hat-wearing bumpkins prone to spitting chewing tobacco, which they do with gross frequency.
The murder of a McCoy is followed by accusations of a Hatfield stealing a McCoy pig (best testimony at trial: "It's done been e't!"). The pace and story pick up with the Romeo and Juliet-style romance between Anse's son, Johnse (Matt Barr, who's way too pretty to play a convincing hillbilly), and Randall McCoy's daughter, Roseanna (Lindsay Pulsipher).
This love story, which begins in Monday's premiere, grounds the miniseries in a recognizable plot and allows it to emerge from the grimy backwoods in a way that makes the story more relatable for a modern audience.
"If you like the Hatfields so much, why don't you go stay with them forever," Randall growls at his daughter. At times, Mr. Paxton's performance, bathed as it is in calls to God and heaven above, brings to mind his sanctimonious "Big Love" character.
In between barn dances and drinking/dancing festivals in the woods that members of both families attend, the two sides take turns harassing each other. At times, "Hatfields & McCoys" feels like a backwoods soap opera crossed with "Spy vs. Spy" as each family seeks to inflict maximum damage on the other. (How accurate "Hatfields & McCoys" really is may best be left to historians.)
When "Hatfields & McCoys" slows down enough to develop its characters -- and it's fairly rudimentary character development -- the miniseries comes to life. Often it's the McCoy and Hatfield sons and daughters who make the strongest impressions, particularly through the Johnse-Roseanna romance.
But too often the miniseries is just a recitation of tit-for-tat vengeance. The same story could be told in less than six hours with a more narrow focus. "Hatfields & McCoys" may be too expansive for its own dramatic good.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published May 27, 2012 4:00 AM