`RETURN TO LONESOME DOVE' DOESN'T LIVE UP TO THE ORIGINAL - BUT IT'S STILL QUITE GOOD

Published: Friday, Nov. 12 1993 12:00 a.m. MST

If you saw the original "Lonesome Dove," you're bound to be at least somewhat disappointed with "Return to Lonesome Dove."

And if you didn't see the original, you're bound to be some-what confused with the sequel, which begins Sunday at 8 p.m. on Ch. 5.To answer the most obvious question first: No, "Return" is not as good as the original. Its major failing is the story itself, which Larry McMurtry (who wrote the book "Lonesome Dove") consulted on but did not write. (And which he's gone to some lengths to distance himself from.)

Which is not to say that "Return to Lonesome Dove" is bad. It's actually pretty good, although it starts out slowly and is rather long at seven hours (broadcast over three nights).

It's second major failing, unfortunately, is that it does not stand alone. If you didn't see the original, you're going to have a heck of a time trying to figure out who all these people are.

Even if you did see "Lonesome Dove," the sequel is going to take some getting used to. Most of the original cast members did not return, but several of those characters are being played by different actors - most notably Jon Voight in place of Tommy Lee Jones as Captain Woodrow F. Call and Barbara Hershey in place of Anjelica Huston as Clara Allen.

"Return" begins pretty much where the original left off - Call is in Texas after returning there to bury Gus McRae.

The new miniseries tries desperately to tie itself to the popularity of the Gus character, played in "Lonesome Dove" by Robert Duvall. There are so many references in the first two hours to Gus that the surviving characters seem like 19th-century Elvis fans - they just can't seem to accept that he's dead and move on with their lives.

Instead of Duvall as Gus, we have Voight as Woodrow. And, in addition to trying to carry this seven-hour production, Voight is also handicapped by having to re-create the role created by Jones.

He does an adequate, if unspectacular, job that often seems to lapse into mimicry of Jones.

The plot of the sequel revolves around Woodrow's plan to bring a herd of wild mustangs from Texas to Montana and his Hat Creek Cattle Company. He enlists the aid of Gideon Walker (William Peterson) and Isom Picket (Louis Gossett Jr.) to lead the drive and ends up hiring a young Mexican girl (Nia Peeples) whose given name - Agostina - is a big clue about her background.

His plans include breeding the wild ponies with the horses bred by Clara, thus drawing that character back into the mix.

While Woodrow is in Texas, he leaves the illegitimate son he still won't acknowledge, Newt Dobs (Schroder), in charge. And Newt, fine upstanding boy that he is, ends up getting into some major trouble while helping a friend.

("Return to Lonesome Dove" reunites Voight and Schroder 14 years after they played father and son in "The Champ.")

Powerful cattle baron Gregor Dunnegan (Oliver Reed) gets Newt out of trouble and more or less adopts the young man, even though Gregor's young wife (Reese Witherspoon) is more than a little interested in Newt. Newt's confused loyalty to the real father who won't claim him and the man who would be his father provides a pivot for the plot to turn on.

There's also a loathsome bad guy, Cherokee Jack (Dennis Haybert), who makes trouble for several of the main characters.

"Return to Lonesome Dove" does not put its best foot forward in its first two hours. Except for a terrific cliffhanger, this is not great TV.

But "Return" does pick up steam as it rolls along across all that majestic Montana scenery. Events begin to come together in Part 2 - culminating in yet another nifty cliffhanger - and the three-hour Part 3 comes close to being terrific.

There is, as could be expected, a great deal of violence in these seven hours. Gunplay abounds, along with fires, dismemberments, attempted rapes and even out-and-out torture.

And the camera does not always look away quickly. One gruesome shot that could have been shown briefly is instead dwelled upon.

This is, after all, the violent 19th- century American frontier, but much of this miniseries is not suitable for young children.

But for adults - particularly adults who enjoy Westerns - "Return to Lonesome Dove" is worth investing the time to watch it.

"Return to Lonesome Dove" airs over three nights on CBS (Ch. 5) - Sunday from 8-10 p.m., Tuesday from 8-10 p.m., and Thursday from 7-10 p.m.

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