A month after Derby Day – when the glamorous side of Kentucky life had its annual turn on the media stage – TV watchers have been caught up recently in a less savory serving of regional lore. The Associated Press reports the History Channel’s “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries made some Nielsen’s ratings history, becoming the top-rated entertainment broadcast ever on advertising-supported basic cable. Viewer interest in the series peaked on the final night last Wednesday when 14.3 million tuned in.
The numbers underline that “Hatfields & McCoys,” about a family feud in the 19th century, remains a story of universal appeal. This sprawling drama begins in the Civil War when “Devil Anse” Hatfield (Kevin Costner) and Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) part ways in a disagreement over military honor. Hatfield heads home, convinced the Confederacy is finished, while McCoy stays on to fight it out. Both eventually get back safely and Hatfield finds success as a timber baron in West Virginia. The two are family patriarchs on opposite sides of the coming feud – supposedly brought to a head by allegations that a Hatfield stole a McCoy pig.
In the spirit of the Shakespearean unpleasantries between the Capulets and Montagues, the story has its star-crossed Romeo – Anse’s son Johnse Hatfield – and its Juliet, Randall’s daughter Roseanna McCoy. The pair fall desperately in love but their fathers forbid them to marry. Alas, the affair ends tragically.
The series is packed with stereotypes both Kentucky and West Virginia try to live down – a veritable army of illiterate, dirt-poor hillbillies swilling moonshine from backwoods stills, quick to anger over trivial matters and just as quick to drop to their knees and beg forgiveness from the almighty afterwards. Most are cartoonish, but Anse, Randall and Wall Hatfield (Powers Boothe), a hanging judge who suspends the necktie parties when it suits his purposes, are more fully drawn. Randall, a church-going man, confesses to doubts at one point that a truly loving God would permit atrocities such as those committed by the two warring clans. Anse, no country simpleton, outsmarts a Louisville lawyer he suspects of trying to cheat him on a real estate deal and ends up settling for timber rights to the shyster’s 5,000 acres of inherited land. The subsequent lumbering campaign foreshadows Appalachian strip-mining of the present day. But Anse’s crews are armed with whipsaws, not chainsaws. Mountaintop removal was still more than a century away.
It’s Randall who sticks to his guns in the feud – just as he did during the Civil War – while Anse eventually sickens of the killing and declares peace on behalf of his decimated family.
One disappointment is that the series was produced not in Kentucky and West Virginia, but thousands of miles away in Romania. You’d think that the film offices of two of America’s poorest states would have been salivating over the prospect of a business deal even though the region was portrayed in an unflattering light, and perhaps they were interested. It apparently came down to money – according to news reports it was simply cheaper to do the job abroad. Maybe the moguls got the wrong idea from all those productions about rich horse people.