Bill Paxton is hands-down brilliant and plain freakish in History's 'Texas Rising'

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Olivier Martinez as Santa Anna and Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Emily West in "Texas Rising" on the History Channel. (Photo credit: Carlos Somonte)

There's no reason to beat around the bush: Texas Rising, History's five-part mini-series about the Texas Revolution, has to be one of the strangest, most idiosyncratic dramas on TV since Twin Peaks.

An odd hybrid between the western and the historical saga, the dramatic and the comedic, Texas Rising is about the bloody war waged in 1835 and 1836 by Texians (as they referred to themselves) to free the territory from the Mexican Empire.

Richly textured and enjoyable if wildly uneven, the star-studded series tries to marry the hard-nosed, brutally violent realism of modern TV   to an antique - some would say antiquated - aesthetic of genteel mannerisms and off-the-wall humor prevalent during the first golden age of TV in the 1950s and '60s. It's Spartacus meets The Andy Griffith Show; Boardwalk Empire crossed with The Wild Wild West; Hannibal by way of Bonanza.

Texas Rising's ambition and sweep is veritably Shakespearean, even if its execution sometimes smacks of This is Spinal Tap.

For non-Texans (or Texians, if you prefer) unfamiliar with the Lone Star State's origins, it's a fascinating historical ride filled with larger-than-life characters such as Texian president and general Sam Houston (Bill Paxton), Texas Rangers officer Deaf Smith (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the mighty Comanche warrior Buffalo Hump (Horacio Garcia Rojas), not to mention the dreaded, the bloodthirsty, the brilliant Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez). Kris Kristofferson rounds out the players with a rather deliciously bombastic performance as American President Andrew Jackson

Paxton ( who also starred in History's Hatfields & McCoys) delivers one of his most memorable performances - hands-down brilliant and plain freakish - as Houston, a charismatic, plainspoken Virginian. Houston became governor of Tennessee in 1827 only to give it all up two years later to move to Texas and lead the attempt to declare independence from Mexico and eventually join the United States.

The first act opens with the fall of the Alamo in an infamous battle in which Santa Anna takes the Texian fort and slaughters every one of its inhabitants, save a handful of women. Martinez (Revenge) is wonderfully twisted as the eminently cultured general who doesn't believe in taking prisoners. He channels the tics of old-time Hollywood villains - down to stroking his mustache in a manner foreboding and evil.

Houston, who was miles away at the time with the majority of his forces, is at a low point: Half his officers want to depose him and go after the Mexican army, a vast force of professional soldiers who outman and outgun the Texians.

Morgan is sensitive, lovable, and resolute as Houston's best friend. He commands the Rangers, who are fiercely loyal to their president and his cause.

There is a lot of bloodletting on Texas Rising, not all of it human. (Santa Anna was apparently fond of cockfighting, and we see his champion fighter, named Sam Houston, tear at other poultry in the ring.)

There are also skullduggery, espionage, and love.

There is a whole program of old-time comedy delivered by a secondary cast of youngsters who regularly find themselves embroiled in the goofiest, most gosh-darned situations of the sort encountered by Elizabethan knaves and fools.

Strap in. It's going to be a wild ride.

 


TV REVIEW

Texas Rising

Five-part mini-series premieres 9 p.m. Monday on History.


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