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AMC’s new Western The Son, starring Pierce Brosnan, is a big, sprawling heap o’ nothing

Based on an acclaimed novel, the series seems like it’s saving its biggest moments for season four.

The Son
Pierce Brosnan plays a Texas patriarch in The Son.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I don’t know why it’s so weird that Pierce Brosnan is playing the patriarch of a sprawling Texas family in AMC’s new Western The Son.

His accent isn’t bad (though you can hear hints of his native Irish accent here and there), and his performance is generally quite solid. But there’s something off about him all the same — as if there’s no way he would ever be the head of this particular family.

That slight air of discrepancy is a synecdoche of the series’ problems as a whole: Everybody involved in the show is trying their very hardest, but nothing sinks in deeply enough to take root. Even after seeing six episodes of a 10-episode first season, I’m hard-pressed to tell you what The Son is meant to be, beyond “a TV series adaptation of Philipp Meyer’s novel of the same name.”

The series has a vast sweep and a neatly controlled sprawl. Its characters include a wide range of Texans, from two separate timelines. And its most potent sequences are often compelling.

But it also embraces what might be the single worst tendency of TV book adaptations, much to its detriment.

The Son constantly looks toward the future, in sacrifice of the present

Take a look at some of the character bios on AMC’s page for The Son. You’re sure to find a few that refer to events that don’t factor into the series very early on, but that will happen somewhere along the line. (Also, many of the bios refer to philosophical conflicts that aren’t exactly present on the show so far but will probably emerge with continued exposure to the characters.)

This focus on whom the characters will become is almost certainly an extension of the fact that The Son is based on Meyer’s novel, which takes place in three separate timelines (the mid-1800s, the early 1900s, and the late 1900s into the 2010s) and covers the grand sweep of the McCulloch family’s life, from when Eli is taken by the Comanche as a boy to when his great-granddaughter fights to maintain control of the family’s fortune.

The TV series is sticking to two timelines for now, and has collapsed the scope of the series from four generations to three. But there’s still the possibility that it will eventually broach the deep 20th and maybe even the 21st century, if it runs for long enough.

The Son
The Son has quite the epic sweep when it remembers to pull back the camera.

As such, The Son is perhaps too focused on the big picture, as opposed to the immediate picture, which means lots of things happen that are interesting in theory but unfold so slowly, as if every episode covered only a couple of paragraphs in Meyer’s 500-page novel. The whole show feels like it’s holding up a sign that says, “Don’t worry. This will all pay off later.”

Which, okay, sure. That can work. But it doesn’t excuse the fact that I learned far more about The Son’s characters from reading AMC’s website than I did from the show itself, where “subtle character development” sometimes takes the form of “not a whole lot is happening.” The series gets absolutely lost in its own scope.

This is too bad, because there’s a lot of potentially good stuff in the midst of that scope. As I got deeper into the six episodes AMC sent to critics, I found myself becoming slightly more in tune with what the show was doing. At the very least, an action sequence that takes up much of the fifth episode makes for an involving hour of television, and the timeline switching is better modulated in some of the later episodes. In particular, the story of young Eli (Jacob Lofland) having his allegiances tested by his growing respect for his Comanche captors has a solid forward momentum.

And the cast is game. Brosnan is stuck playing the character description of “fading legend” more than he plays an actual character, but has some fun with the role. Zahn McClarnon (formerly of Fargo season two) is, as always, an MVP as Toshaway, a powerful Comanche. The characters in the early 20th century timeline are part of a more crowded ensemble — and thus have less screen time to really stand out — but when they get their moments, they’re generally quite good.

Further, The Son was filmed on location in Texas, and the landscapes give it an epic heft — at least when the show’s directors remember to pull back the camera. (An infuriatingly large amount of the series is filmed in close-up, which tends to make things look a little cheap, because we can’t see the costumes or sets.) Everything about this show feels promising, but there has to be a point when it eventually makes good on those promises.

For the audience that watches AMC’s Saturday-night Westerns (an audience that previously granted the similarly “promising, but not quite there” Western Hell on Wheels five seasons), The Son will probably hit the spot well enough to run for a few years. And in that time, maybe the show will finally reveal what inspired AMC to adapt Meyer’s novel.

For now, the series functions much the same as the oil the McCullochs desperately seek in the early 1900s storyline: It’s obvious something is there, but nobody has figured out how to get to it.

The Son debuts Saturday, April 8, at 9 pm Eastern on AMC.

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