DATELINE: Westworld for Real
When PBS tackles Billy the Kid (a moniker if ever there was), you have something tantamount to Fox News covering Donald Trump. Yes, Americans have a thing for serial killers and serial idiots.
You probably can find a gulf of differences between Trump and Bonney, but they are under the skin self-styled self-important American icons. One was rich and one was poor, but both saw themselves as Robin Hood. They took what they wanted.
For the second season premiere of American Experience, the show decided to do a one-hour special on the Kid. This is a distinct disadvantage in a visual age when there is but one recognized photo of Billy. We see it ad nauseum.
Don’t look for clips from your favorite Billy movie because this is a real history documentary. They eschew Audie Murphy, Emilio Estevez, and Robert Taylor, all of whom epitomized what the experts talk about in movies made a generation or two ago.
And, the show trots out the usual so-called experts on the West, all of whom now see Billy as a kindred spirit to the mistreated Mexicans and Navaho. Yes, he is a civil rights champion.
Billy picked up Spanish language quickly. He had a good ear, but the rest of his face was wanting. However, these experts show us the face of an ugly adolescent and call him “handsome.” You know you are not in Kansas, but in Lincoln County.
The episode also sets the Range War as a version of the War of the Roses: you have Irish immigrants versus British aristocrats with a hired army of mercenaries, including Billy fighting against his own Irish roots.
The legend escaped, but the boy was gunned down in a notorious bedroom shooting. No one mentions whether he was sleeping with a girlfriend, or boyfriend. He was a cop killer with bad press. Like Trump, he decided what law enforcement he approved and called his media following biased.
The short bio dismisses much in an effort to stay on target. Their target was out of range before this so-called documentary started.
Dr. William Russo is author of the historical fiction, When Billy the Kid Met Ben Hur, which examines the Kid’s relationship to Governor Lew Wallace.