Set in the Great Plains region in the years immediately following the American Civil War/War Between the States, the new syndicated one-hour drama series The Pinkertons is reminiscent of TV Western shows from the 1950s, when that genre was the most popular in television. That is to say that The Pinkertons is interesting, entertaining, historically inclined, skillfully plotted, well-performed, and would benefit from a bigger shooting budget.
The twenty-two-episode series features Angus McFayden (Braveheart, Turn) as Allan Pinkerton, the founder and head honcho of the legendary Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, which helped tame the U.S. frontier in the nineteenth century by providing private-sector law enforcement to communities, companies, and individuals across the nation. Pinkerton’s agency was admired by many and hated by some (companies under pressure from labor unions employed the Pinkertons as strikebreakers), but it was certainly an important and interesting part of the nation’s history.
The Pinkertons thus has much useful historical material with which to work, and indeed the series website states that the stories are “based on actual cases from the Pinkerton archives.” The pilot episode has an interesting premise (explained below) and strong story, the latter being one of the critically under-appreciated aspects of 1950s TV Westerns. The central characters of the show are Kate Warne, described by the show’s website as “America’s first female detective,” played by Martha MacIsaac (1600 Penn, Emily of New Moon); and William Pinkerton, Allan’s son, played by Jacob Blair (The A-Team, The Grey, Hot Tub Time Machine). Because of a preexisting commitment to the AMC-TV series Turn, McFayden will not appear in all the episodes but will be a recurring guest star.
Warne is an expert in forensic detection, according to the standards of the time, and William Pinkerton is an impetuous, raffish, character who doesn’t take is work with the seriousness his father wants, but is also clever (what we today call street-smart), good with his fists, and quick on the draw with a handgun. The show depicts some of the innovations Pinkerton brought to the business, including undercover work, mugshots, stakeouts, and background research.
As the latter suggests, and as was often the case with classic TV Westerns of the 1950s, The Pinkertons includes contemporary themes and concerns without forcing too many anachronistic scenes, characters, and dialogue exchanges. Instead, the issues are played out within the dramas largely as people of the time would have reacted to them.
The pilot episode, for example, has the Pinkertons investigating the nation’s first train robbery, and an important element of the plot is a quest for revenge, by partisans of the recently defeated Confederacy, against a former Union sharpshooter. The political divide in postwar Kansas is depicted with some sophistication and sympathy, and issues such as women’s roles, racial discrimination, the power of government and the limits of its legitimate authority, and the like are handled well, without indulging in smug contemporary superiority regarding the faults of the past.
Instead, the episode depicts the characters largely as they would have been, without trying too hard to beat the viewer over the head with what the show’s producers believe to be the right positions on the issues. (Amusingly, the pilot depicts the notorious desperado Jesse James as a youthful hothead with a political ax to grind, which is a reasonable characterization of him at that time.)
The right position (meaning a progressive-left perspective) on such issues, after all, is certainly not hard to come by these days, and the producers are to be commended for refraining from adding to the noise. Such tasteful forbearance is a rarity in the contemporary culture, and judging by its pilot episode, The Pinkertons merits another look for that reason alone, if nothing else.
The series is available in 85 percent of all U.S. markets, at last count, and a list of stations and show times is available here: http://www.pinkertonstheseries.com/where-to-watch/.