At more than one folk-music festival, Floyd Red Crow Westerman has observed that no gathering of Native Americans is ever safe from at least one missionary, one anthropologist, and one FBI agent. Which perhaps explains why every Tony Hillerman novel is an exercise as much in cultural anthropology and comparative religion as in criminal detection. Moreover, we deceive ourselves if we think this anthropologizing is all one way – blue eyes on red behavior. Among my favorite Hillermans is Talking God (1989), in which, to protest a Smithsonian Museum exhibition of Amerindian remains, a part-Navajo conservator digs up the bones of his Wasp colleague’s New England ancestors and has them delivered to her from the graveyard in a sack of dirt.
Skinwalkers isn’t quite so subversive. But it’s about time that the public-television Mystery! series crossed over to this side of the Atlantic, where a whole outlaw literature was just waiting to be screenplayed, as well as a tradition of kinky mayhem as robust as any other in the fraught world. And if Skinwalkers attracts the big audience it deserves, there are a dozen more Hillerman novels where this one came from, in the deserts and mountains of Arizona and New Mexico and Utah, full of sand paintings, ghostways, and shamanism, populated by changing women, salt people, mud clans, and sacred clowns, not to mention the usual complement of condescending academics, greed-crazed relic hunters, dude plutocrats, and undercover Feds.
Someone in the spectacularly beautiful American Southwest is killing off Navajo medicine men, even as Officer Jim Chee of the Tribal Police is training to become one, and even as Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is discovering that white medicine can’t cure his wife of cancer. (Skinwalkers is the first Tony Hillerman novel in which the metaphysician Chee and the Enlightenment rationalist Leaphorn team up to work on the same case and each other’s nerves.) That the murderer is reported to appear to his victims in animal form, wearing a dog’s skull as a cap and moving at lightning speed, suggests that he may be a “skinwalker,” a Navajo witch with a dark wind blowing through him. But what’s his beef with these healers, most of them so old that they’ll snuffle off soon enough anyway?
It’s a satisfying mystery, but an even more satisfying production, directed by Chris Eyre with the same pause-and-poke, jive-and-joke bodhisattva style he brought to Smoke Signals. Smoke Signals, in fact, is where we first met Adam Beach, who plays Jim Chee here with just the right slow-beat taking of his own temperature and consulting of his inner mystical compass. (I like him so much I want to forewarn him against his lawyer love, Janet Pete, to shout out that she will break his heart!) As if he had been broken and mended so often that he consists entirely of his seams, Wes Studi brings the same wounded dignity to the role of Joe Leaphorn that he brought to his roles in The Last of the Mohicans and Dances With Wolves. Robert Redford is executive producer, and James Redford adapted the novel into a teleplay.
If Beach and Studi aren’t available for sequels, Mystery! could do a lot worse than familiarize itself with Hillerman’s latest character, Bernadette Manuelito, who has just decided in The Wailing Wind to leave the Navajo Tribal Police for the Border Patrol.
Everybody John Gray consulted about his screenplay for Martin and Lewis, most emphatically including Dean Martin’s widow and Jerry Lewis in loquacious person, seems to have approved of his conception of their relationship – a Jerry who required of the world in general and his partner in particular more love than there is in this universe, and a Dean who, in spite of his way-cool image, was so tightly wrapped and deep-down numb he wouldn’t give you body heat or the time of day. No wonder that after ten years of frightening popularity, they ran away from each other. As Dean, Jeremy Northam is an odd and interesting choice, equally at home as a sedated crooner in a forties nightclub as he was as a lovesick poet in nineteenth-century Possession. As Jerry, Sean Hayes from Will & Grace seems in retrospect an obvious choice. Still, he is frantically perfect, embodying all that’s scariest about clowns: grand opera and soda-cracker crumbs.
Sinking City of Venice (November 19; 8 to 9 p.m.; Channel 13) is Nova’s report on the rising Adriatic and the subsiding metropolis, around which like a bathtub ring there is now a dirty-green high-water mark of algae and a seeping of salt into the foundation stones. Will the big gate they’re hoping to build seal off the sea when they need to, and/or turn the lagoon into a cesspool? Benjamin Franklin (November 19, 9 to 11 p.m.; November 20, 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) is everything you already know about Poor Richard before and after he wrote his Almanack – from the genius inventor to the revolutionary who sounded like your uncle Chuckles to the womanizer who looked like a potato in the fried French court. Richard Easton is the voice of Ben. We also hear from Dylan Baker, Kathleen Chalfant, Peter Gerety, Roberta Maxwell, and Josef Sommer. Besides the usual Franklin biographers, we hear from a Ben buff, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson. BrotherMen (November 21; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is filmmaker Demetria Royals’s celebration of the diverse arts of African-American songwriters, photographers, choreographers, dancers, and civil-rights activists, wonderfully including – for those of you asleep since World War II – Pop Staples and the Staple Singers. Inside TV Land: Cops on Camera (November 24; 9 to 10 p.m.; TV Land), while talking to Dick Wolf, Steven Bochco, Aaron Spelling, and Stephen J. Cannell, not only takes us from Dragnet through Mod Squad to Miami Vice and NYPD Blue but also includes videotape of the Rodney King beating. The Search for Kennedy’s PT 109 (November 24; 8 to 9 p.m.; MSNBC) follows the inevitable Robert Ballard into the waters of the South Pacific, where, clearly, National Geographic Explorer has run out of useful things to do with its time and money. Ronald Reagan: A Legacy Remembered (November 25; 9 to 11 p.m.; History Channel) is truly an amazement, a valentine to Ronnie from his wife and kids that manages not to interview anyone to the political left of Caspar Weinberger (except maybe Mikhail Gorbachev), although the Presidents Bush, father and son, do mention his shortcomings on, for instance, pollution and racism. This is History? No. This is Television.
Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers
Sunday, November 24; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13.
Martin and Lewis
Sunday, November 24; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS.