What we know, or have decided to accept, about the life of the deputy U.S. marshal Bass Reeves has more of the flavor of carnival legend than of scholarship. The Paramount+ series “Lawmen: Bass Reeves,” which concluded on Sunday, was based not on history books or biographies but on novels. The most prominent telling of his story so far was a dramatization of a dramatization.
That kind of haziness leaves room for invention, and the tales that have settled around Reeves — a former slave credited with 3,000 arrests; a crack shot said to have killed 14 men in the line of duty — could be the basis for a new take on classic western action and adventure. The tales also suggest that the career Reeves carved out for himself, and the extreme success he found, would at least occasionally have caused him some excitement and joy. That is not where “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” ended up.
David Oyelowo gave an unimpeachable performance as Reeves, focused and intense and emotionally true. And the show’s creator, Chad Feehan, and his directors, Christina Alexandra Voros and Damian Marcano, put onscreen a notably handsome and visually credible evocation of the American West in the 1870s. The show had texture — it gave a tactile pleasure throughout its eight episodes.
But as it went along, it became less of a treat to watch and more of a chore. Its story of heroism against all odds had gun battles and frontier romance, but we were almost never allowed to simply enjoy them. And poor David Oyelowo appeared to be having less fun than anyone.
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