Let's get this out of the way off the top: the three-network miniseries event Bonnie & Cyde, which aired its first installment last night on A&E, History and Lifetime with Part 2 to follow tonight, is not a remake of the 1967 Arthur Penn classic about the '30s-era outlaws that set Hollywood on its ear and made superstars of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. While that may seem obvious, the movie casts such a long shadow -- and has so thoroughly defined the historical and pop culture image of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker -- that it's important to point out that the miniseries aspires to stay closer to the historical record than the more freewheeling film, which gleefully mixed broad comedy and bloody violence in ways that audiences at the time were unprepared for. Although there are some comic flourishes (and basic cable-appropriate -- i.e. PG-13 – bits of bloodshed) in this expanded, made-for-TV version, it's mostly a straightforward account of the duo's life and times.
It's also, I'm sorry to say, mostly pretty boring -- a clear example of why some stories are perhaps better off abridged. Last night's premiere, for example, took almost an hour to establish the same relationship that the film did in its opening scene. That famous sequence, of course, found Dunaway's Bonnie lounging around in her ramshackle home when she catches sight of the dapper Clyde through the window trying to hijack her mama's car. Throwing on a dress she confronts the would-be robber, who correctly susses out that she's fed-up with small-town life and casually reveals himself as an ex-con fresh off a jail sentence for armed robbery. In the very next scene, Bonnie's riding shotgun alongside Clyde as they embark on a shared criminal career that makes them true crime celebrities.
Now, compare that level of narrative efficiency and economy to the miniseries, where we're shown Clyde's pre-Bonnie gangster days, as well as his prison term and the first time he hears of a certain Miss Parker, who was coming off a teenage marriage and clearly not cut out for the personal and professional options available to her at the time. Seeing this material dramatized may pad out the series' running time, but it doesn't do all that much to enhance our understanding of either Bonnie (played here by Holliday Grainger) or Clyde (Emile Hirsch). The same goes for the way series presents them settling on bank robbery as a profession. In the film, that occurs in the span of a single conversation, with Clyde introducing himself to a pair of foreclosed-upon farmers, saying "We rob banks." It takes almost the entirety of Bonnie & Clyde's first installment to cover the ground contained in those three words.
While tonight's concluding installment at least benefits from less exposition, it still doesn't offer anything compelling enough to dislodge memories of the film version from viewers' minds. (Frankly, it's hard to imagine why anyone not familiar with the movie would tune in to begin with.) The one major innovation that sticks is the time spent with PJ Lane (Elizabeth Reaser), the journalist who covered the charismatic couple's crime spree and found herself torn between acting like their publicist or a journalist. As written and performed by Reaser, Lane is by far the most interesting character in the miniseries and, frankly, a more interesting version of this series might have been told from her point of view. Instead we're saddled with watching Grainger and Hirsch struggling to make us forget that they aren't Dunaway and Beatty. It's a thankless task and while these actors -- both of whom have made strong impressions elsewhere, Hirsch in Into the Wild and Grainger in The Borgias -- can't be accused of phoning it in, they also don't feel entirely at ease in these surroundings. All in all, this is a colorless re-telling of a pair of colorful lives.
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