I was determined to try and cut Bruce Beresford‘s Bonnie & Clyde miniseries a break. The only fair way to watch it, I decided, was to at least temporarily erase the memory of Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty‘s 1967 classic. But I couldn’t do it. I tried but I couldn’t. Beatty and Faye Dunaway‘s Clyde and Bonnie had an irrepressible charisma, vulnerability and turbulence of spirit, and Emile Hirsch and Holliday Grainger‘s…I don’t want to be cruel or dismissive, but Beresford’s version just doesn’t cut it. It feels like a Depression-era crime story re-styled by for 2013 generation and re-enacted by the C team. But show me any decently assembled documentary about the real-life pair and I’m hooked. It’s not the song, it’s the singers.

Nearly 10 million watched last night’s two-hour opener. (It concludes tonight.) What percentage even knows about the ’67 version, much less has seen it? I would be surprised to hear that more than 1% of last night’s audience knows of the Penn-Beatty-Dunaway version. We live in degraded times.

I just can’t understand how Beresford, one of the leading lights of ’70s and ’80s cinema, has evolved into a seemingly rote-minded, run-of-the-mill TV director. I can’t decide if he peaked with Breaker Morant (’80) or Tender Mercies (’83 — still an exquisite relationship film), but I know that King David (’85) and Crimes of the Heart (’86) were at least decently made and respectfully regarded, and that Beresford’s last industry-friendly hurrah was the much-derided-in-hindsight Driving Mss Daisy (’89).

“Comparisons with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde are pretty extraneous a half-century down the road, but, really, it’s hard to ignore the contrast,” wrote N.Y. Times critic Mike Hale. “Zeroing in on Barrow and Parker’s short time together, Penn pioneered the artful presentation of extreme violence yet also convincingly rendered the texture of rural Texas in the Depression era and showcased bravura performances by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

“The television Bonnie & Clyde, written by John Rice and Joe Batteer and directed by Bruce Beresford, is thoroughly inoffensive and resolutely middle-of-the-road, a big slab of a story about a doomed love affair between two nice, good-looking kids who had some really bad luck. As Barrow and Parker, Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) and Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) are both older than their characters were when they died — Barrow was 25, Parker 23 — but they seem too young, too feckless, too clean. You don’t believe that these lightweights grew up in poverty or lived on the run or gunned down a series of lawmen, even as you watch them doing it.

“Mr. Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy, Breaker Morant) gives the sentimental material a corresponding autumnal glow, and there are sweeping, lovely images of Texas fields under big skies, a shimmering crescent moon and an oil refinery sparkling in the night. A lot of trouble and expense appear to have gone into making the period details persuasive, but there’s still an artificial, playacting quality that may have to do with the actors or may be an inevitable consequence of high-definition viewing.”