Once upon a time A&E aired quality programming, back in the day when its brand was actually Arts & Entertainment (think: "Horatio Hornblower," "Pride & Prejudice"). But that was the era before "Storage Wars" and "Dog the Bounty Hunter."
More recently A&E has tried to move back into scripted programming with the disappointingly generic "The Glades" and paint-by-number action-adventure "Breakout Kings."
Compared to those efforts, new drama "Longmire" (10 tonight, A&E) marks an evolutionary leap forward -- but it may still pale compared to other smart, basic cable dramas.
Already "Longmire" has been compared to FX's "Justified" because both shows are about lawmen. But they focus on significantly different characters: If Raylan Givens of "Justified" is fueled by anger, Walt Longmire (Australian actor Robert Taylor) is driven by sorrow.
As the series begins, it's been one year since the death of Walt's wife. Viewers don't learn the circumstances of her passing in the first episode -- the only one A&E made available for review -- but it seems to have taken a toll on the taciturn Wyoming sheriff. Daughter Cady (Cassidy Freeman, "Smallville") complains that his log cabin house is a mess and keeps getting messier.
In the opening scene, Walt is slow to respond to calls from Vic Moretti (Katee Sackhoff, "Battlestar Galactica"), his newest deputy. And longtime deputy Branch Connally (Bailey Chase, "Saving Grace") complains to Walt, "You haven't been on top of your game for the last year."
But in the show's first mystery, Walt proves himself tops in his department despite some missteps involving notification of next of kin and, later, an overturned vehicle.
The "Longmire" pilot, written by executive producers Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny ("The Closer") and based upon the "Walt Longmire Mysteries" book series by Craig Johnson, introduces characters and a setting with potential. But there are a few distractions, including scenes with cliched dialogue and unbelievable situations.
Walt has a confrontation with an Indian reservation officer who declares, "You have no authority here. Those are the treaty rules and I know how important treaties are to whites," which sounds like a line out of a bad movie.
Later, Walt is given information that implicates his friend of 37 years, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips, "Stargate Universe"), and Walt doesn't question it, takes the accusation at face value and is proved wrong. It's an out-of-character mistake for Walt, who pledges "honor and integrity" in his run for re-election and clearly means it.
Director Christopher Chulack ("Southland") shoots New Mexico (playing Wyoming) with an eye to the horizon, highlighting an empty terrain that echoes Walt's own loneliness.
The look of the show is fantastic and the setting is unusual. Rural ranchlands rarely show up as backdrops for a prime-time television series. Rarer still are dramatic, fictional stories involving citizens who live on an Indian reservation, another plot point introduced in the "Longmire" pilot that will hopefully be fleshed out in subsequent episodes.
As with any pilot, "Longmire" barely scratches the surface of the possible directions it could go but the premiere does an excellent job establishing a sense of place and character. It's enough to make a viewer want to return for more.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.