Lonesome Dove," the beautifully made, eight-hour serialization of Larry McMurtry's much-loved novel, is enough to give one new respect for the miniseries, new respect for Texas, new respect for CBS, and even new respect for television. There is almost never anything this good on network TV. Arguably the best western in 20 years, "Lonesome Dove" airs over four successive nights, tonight through Wednesday, at 9 on Channel 9. Those who cherish the 1985 book should be pleased and gratified at the adaptation's fidelity to it, and those who haven't read the novel will likely be moved and fascinated anyway. It is an uncommonly rich and resonant production. Like the book, the film starts pokily. Two pink pigs tugging on a snake is about the most dramatic thing that happens in the first 45 minutes or so. But then Robert Duvall, as the rangy and forthright Augustus McCrae, rallies pals in the dusty hole of Lonesome Dove for a cattle drive to end all cattle drives, 2,500 miles north from southwest Texas to Montana -- a lot farther then (the late 19th century) than it is now. What follows is high adventure, vitally realized, as perilous and romantic as anything in ancient legend, yet echoing with authentic Americana. It's as if an entire era rematerialized, in loving, glorious and painful detail. Like "The Wild Bunch" in 1969, "Lonesome Dove" commemorates dying breeds in changing times. Gus McCrae makes a satisfying, galvanizing hero, and Duvall fleshes him out intuitively. Even in the tranquil opening sequences, he does a lot more than the kind of soulful mooning he committed in the overrated "Tender Mercies." As his friend Woodrow C. Call, like Gus a former Texas Ranger, Tommy Lee Jones shows powers only hinted at in some previous roles. A set of white whiskers does wonders for his credibility. "Lonesome Dove" offers the reassuring pleasures not only of great storytelling, but of a prodigious cast making good on every promise, and with some unlikely surprises besides. Anjelica Huston may seem an odd choice for the earth-motherly role of Clara, the idealized love of Gus' life, but she plays it to perfection. And Ricky Schroder, one-time child star, graduates fully from cuteness with a breezy, disarming performance as awkward young Newt, for whom this is a first cattle drive instead of, as for Gus and Woodrow, a last. Robert Urich, never very impressive before, shows that, when in the company of exceptional actors, he can rise to their level. He plays Jake Spoon, a spineless charmer who's along for some of the ride. Danny Glover, one of the busiest and most versatile actors around, makes an indelible impression even in the slightly underwritten role of Joshua Deets, stalwart scout. Diane Lane is both scintillating and touching as Lorena, a prostitute clinging to remnants of innocence in the one-whore town of Lonesome Dove. She is as smitten with Jake Spoon as Dish Boggett, deftly played by D.B. Sweeney, is with her. Another hard-luck lover, Chris Cooper as Nebraska sheriff July Johnson, poignantly pursues his runaway wife Elmira, played by Glenne Headly. For such a wide West, characters' paths cross with suspicious frequency, but that doesn't really impair the believability of the story. One arguably weak link in the cast is Frederic Forrest as the sociopathic killer Blue Duck, a full-blooded Indian in the book, diplomatically changed to a half-breed in the film. A large putty nose has been squashed across Forrest's face, making him slightly comical when he should be menacing. Forrest does not appear until Night 2. Huston does not appear until Night 3. The first night, let's face it, is the least eventful. CBS programmers are worried that people will tune out. But there is something to be said for the natural, leisurely rhythms of the introductory sections and the way we are allowed to get to know characters on their own terms. A particularly horrific death at the end of Part 1 presages scenes of graphic violence to come. A young Irishman homesick for his mother falls into a swarm of snakes in a stream; the chilling image stays with you. It serves as an initiation into the hard realities of the epoch and the unflinching way they will be depicted; dangers were myriad and ferocious. In the course of the eight hours, people are shot, stabbed, impaled, lynched, scalped, raped and immolated. Gus takes two arrows in his right leg late in the story during an Indian attack in Montana (unlike Moses, he does get to visit the promised land), and only one of them can be pulled out. Ugh. In addition, those concerned about such things might like to be told that Part 3 opens with men riding bareback in a slightly different sense of that term and that the dialogue has plenty of period raunch. "You ain't even asked me for a poke," Lorena complains to Gus. Another hooker tells a customer, "This pony don't buck for free." The film would be rated PG-13 if shown in theaters. But none of the telling details could pass for sensationalism. "Lonesome Dove" is robust and adult. McMurtry's three-part novel has been neatly divided into quarters for TV: "Leaving," "On the Trail," "The Plains" and "Return." Even though incidents and characters may seem familiar from other westerns, they take on a raw freshness here, and despite the length, "Lonesome Dove" remains consistent and cohesive. Bill Wittliff adapted the book, and Simon Wincer directed. Wincer has a feeling for what makes the great outdoors great; the film, as photographed in Texas and New Mexico by Douglas Milsome, is pictorially elegant, sometimes breathtaking, but doesn't have the kind of self-conscious, fussed-over look that has rendered inert such modern westerns as Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider." Maybe the western fell out of favor because people stopped making good ones. Now they have started again. In virtually all production details, excellence prevails. That would include a lyrically supportive score by Basil Poledouris. The executive producers are Wittliff and Suzanne de Passe of Motown Productions. Wittliff's script and Duvall's performance probably do the most to keep "Lonesome Dove" on track. Pausing in a San Antonio bar after a stroll past the Alamo, Duvall's Gus raises a glass: "Well, here's to the sunny slopes of long ago." He is sounding a note of melancholy that gently haunts the film. Death occurs so frequently that it becomes a character itself. "Sometimes it seems like grave-digging's all we do around here," Clara says in Part 4. But at least here the dead are mourned. Many departures evoke a wrenching sense of loss. "Yesterday's gone; we can't get it back," Gus notes, and he imagines that when you die "maybe you just go back to ... wherever you was happiest." In front of the Alamo, Gus expresses regret over the effectiveness with which he and Woodrow disposed of Mexicans and Indians as "civilization" moved westward. "Me and you done our work too well," he says. "We killed off most of the people that made this country interesting to begin with, didn't we?" The dialogue retains the cryptic poetry McMurtry put into it. Gazing out at the vast Montana horizon before him, Newt marvels, "Gus, I never thought I'd see so far." Occasionally, Gus' seasoned sang-froid gets a trifle monotonous; stoic is one thing, but you wish for a little more expressiveness from him. There are tiny miscalculations here and there, but nothing serious. Considering the attention to detail, it's too bad that "Ogallala," a city in Nebraska, is spelled two different ways. But these things happen. Emotional moments sneak up unexpectedly, which makes them all the more affecting. "Men have tears in them, same as you," Clara tells her daughter; there are plenty of scenes that put one's resistance to a tough test. The film is full of humor, too. Wincer can always cut to the pigs for comic relief; they follow the caravan all the way to Montana (in the book, they were eaten, but the audience is spared that). After bashing an Army bully in the face with a branding iron, Woodrow explains, "I hate rude behavior in a man. I won't tolerate it." We get to know and appreciate the code by which these people lived, how it made sense for the time, and how it contributed to the mythic legacy McMurtry perpetuates. On the marker to one cowhand's grave, "Splendid behavior" is carved by Gus. "Lonesome Dove" is about respect, self-respect and otherwise, and it was made with the greatest of respect both for the material and for the audience. The filmmakers have created what looks to be a romantic classic, filled with characters who have the potential to be unforgettable. Here's to the sunny slopes of the next four nights. Splendid behavior, indeed.