By Ken Tucker
Updated May 29, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Chris Large/The History Channel
Chris Large/The History Channel

At four-and-a-half-plus hours, the three-night, Kevin Costner-starring Hatfields & McCoys – a recreation of a 19th-century rural feud that’s probably just one generation beyond common knowledge – well, this big thing could have been a tedious bore. And it is, in spots, but now that we’ve hit the second night, the feudin’ and the corncob-pipe-puffin’ really kick in. “I rue the day I saved your life,” said McCoy/Paxton. “I saved your life that day!” sputtered Hatfield/Costner. The exchange may sound banal, but it is the banality of hurt feelings, suspicions, and profound misunderstandings that led to so much agony and so many deaths in these families.

Hatfields & McCoys has proven an early ratings bonanza for the History Channel, which today released ratings boasting of “over 17 million people” total watching the premiere and encore broadcast last night. Working once again with Costner, director Kevin Reynolds – who did Waterworld (if you can say anyone “did” that) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – summons up a vivid tableau of backwoods life. Costner, as Devil Anse Hatfield (now, don’t go thinkin’ ’bout naming your first-born “Devil,” I don’t care how popular this miniseries is), and Bill Paxton, as Randall McCoy, head up the clans that clash, and both have been giving distinctively soulful performances.

The epic squabble, for those just tuning in from America’s Got Talent: Just after the Civil War, friends and side-by-side Confederate soldiers Hatfield and McCoy return to their homes and grow apart. Arguments and misunderstandings grow like weeds between their respective plots of land in West Virginia and Kentucky. Everything from timber rights to the supposed theft of a pig eventually results in bloody fistfights and deadly gun battles.

On Tuesday’s second installment, Paxton’s McCoy makes the literally fatal mistake of offering a bounty to Pinkerton agents for the capture of the Hatfields he feels are breaking the law. This opened an opportunity for the feud to spread beyond bloodlines — and Hatfields & McCoys is nearly hijacked by an interloper: Andrew Howard’s delightfully showy performance as “Bad Frank” Phillips, a Pinkerton who rode with Frank and Jesse James, and who exploits the feud by becoming a sadistic killer-for-hire, collecting bounty rewards like so many scalps. McCoy inveighed against what he called “your atrocity,” but it was too late.

Costner deserves credit, here and in his 2003 film Open Range, for trying to find variations on the Western genre (here, the backwoods saga) capable of surprising audiences with their freshness and depth — or at least depth-of-field in their photography. He has managed, as both miniseries producer and star, to keep Hatfield’s pipe-smoking stoic from being a hillbilly cliché. Similarly, Paxton’s McCoy, a devout man with a healthy streak of fear, is a complex figure in this saga, devout and angry, an introvert to Hatfield’s extrovert, a leader only with reluctance. You can understand why these men initially admired and eventually hated each other. As Hatfield says at one point, “If ever two men misunderstood each other, it was us.”

Hatfields & McCoys occasionally bogs down in the miniseries’ chief subplot, the drawling Romeo-and-Juliet romance between Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr) and Roseanne McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher). But Jena Malone was around more on Tuesday to spice things up as a devious McCoy cousin, Nancy, who tempts Johnse. On this night, the pair went to Wall Hatfield (a fine Powers Boothe), the oldest of the Hatfield brothers and a judge, to get hitched. Tom Berenger, nearly unrecognizable beneath whiskers and buckskin, is fine as Devil Anse’s uncle and ruthless ally. And Mare Winningham, as wife Sally McCoy, and Paxton’s Randall had a touchingly quiet discussion of the havoc the fighting has wrought, the moral as well as physical consequences of this never-ending fight.

In stretching the tale over three nights, the pacing occasionally sags, and recriminations can get repetitive. It also doesn’t help that Reynolds has shot the miniseries in that perpetual sepia-tone that gives everything a faux-antique look. But overall, Hatfields & McCoys is engrossing and enlightening about a squabble that proves to be a lot more than the bumpkin brawl of pop legend. By the end of this installment, the disagreement has escalated in their minds as “startin’ another Civil War,” and the power of this miniseries is that it feels that way to us, too.

Have you been engrossed in Hatfields & McCoys?

Twitter: @kentucker