The Top Five programs of the 2021–22 TV season went like this: football, football, football, football, Yellowstone—the modern-day Western with Kevin Costner that averaged about 2.4 million viewers in this, its fifth, season. What’s impressive about that is the massive numbers Yellowstone gets despite airing on hard-to-find cable and streaming platforms: the Paramount Network and Peacock. Yet it has made itself such must-see-TV that it cut through the noise—including Hollywood skepticism about anyone in a cowboy hat—to become the most popular not-football show on TV. It has also launched an empire for its creator, Taylor Sheridan. His interwoven shows are turning a traditionally blue-state medium deep red.
This year, Sheridan followed up Yellowstone with a prequel called 1883, a full-on period Western starring country music’s First Couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (who can act almost, if not quite, as well as they sing). Its first season follows the forebearers of Costner’s character, John Dutton, on a wagon train from Texas. They eventually settle on the Montana land that will, seven generations later, become a battleground pitting Dutton’s traditional rancher values against everything the modern world can throw at him: progress, environmentalism, murderous militias, and, most heinous of all, corporate carpetbaggers from New York and Los Angeles (the twin poles of Sheridan’s axis of evil). The Dutton family saga just got another series with 1923, starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. After seeing what Sheridan did for Costner—i.e., write him the role of a lifetime—A-listers are now lining up at the barn door. Tom Hanks and Billy Bob Thornton did cameos in Yellowstone. Jeremy Renner is The Mayor of Kingstown, Sheridan’s gritty crime drama about America’s prison system. And Sylvester Stallone emerged from his cryo chamber to star in Tulsa King, about a New York mobster exiled to Oklahoma.
A prodigious and insanely prolific writer who wrote and directed every episode of the first season of Yellowstone and 1883 and still seems to write most of everything else in the Sheridanverse (as it’s been dubbed), Sheridan is also in his shows. He gave himself a small part in 1883 and has a recurring role in Yellowstone that allows him to show off his own Texas twang and legit cowboy skills. He’s a brand now, big enough to buy the legendary 266,000-acre West Texas ranch that inspired the next Yellowstone spin-off, 6666. This once-struggling character actor started writing only at age 40 and saw his screenplays for two highly regarded movies produced in quick succession in just two years—the cartel thriller Sicario in 2015 and the superb Oscar-nominated cops-and-bank-robbers tale Hell or High Water in 2016. Now he’s become unquestionably the most successful television producer of the 2020s.
I came late to Yellowstone, being myself one of those effete city slickers allergic to horses and country music. I actually have been to Montana; I went 20 years ago on a libertarian think-tank junket. I fly-fished in the Gallatin River, luxuriated in a hot tub under the stars with government-phobic Mormons. But as my nature-loving wife will attest, I’m better suited to The Great Indoors. To make a short story shorter: I’m not the audience for a show that indulges in long montages of cowboys roping calves. And yet, once I started, I binged Yellowstone’s first four seasons with a “just-one-more-episode” fervor I hadn’t felt since Breaking Bad—or, to date myself, since I used my journalistic connections to get advance VHS screeners of the first season of The Sopranos. Like those instant TV classics, Yellowstone gives you every reason to keep watching. Breathtaking scenery. Sex. Violence. Soapy turns that would make Desperate Housewives blush, wrapped (like its coastal-elite coefficient, Succession) in an homage to King Lear. But the No. 1 reason to watch, and keep watching, is Kevin Costner.
Like Cary Grant, Costner (at 67) seems to have grown better-looking with age, the lines in his face like fissures in the snowcapped mountains he’s always staring out at. Sheridan has given him something he never had: gravitas. And a fascinatingly murky complexity. As with Tony Soprano and Walter White, it’s never clear whether John Dutton is a good man who does bad things or a bad one who does good things. In the first season, we learn he literally brands his employees, sizzling the ranch’s “Y” over their hearts as if they’re his cattle, or slaves. He also sends anyone who poses a threat to the Dutton Ranch to “the train station”—a euphemism for a one-way ticket to the bottom of a canyon across the Idaho state line. But Dutton also seems like the last plain-spoken man in a world of double-talk (“When I make a promise, that means something”). And he’s fearless in the face of danger, taking on armed gunmen in the middle of a holdup, then shooting them dead. The gunmen had killed the sheriff, but everyone knows who the real sheriff is ’round these parts—it’s Costner, who wears a cowboy hat whether he’s on his horse or in a suit. And those suits are invariably black, as if he’s in mourning over having to wear one at all.
John Dutton spends a lot of time sitting in front of a crackling fire in an enormous ranch house that would make Ralph Lauren dampen his chaps, nursing a whiskey and brooding over which of his three heirs he could possibly entrust with the reins to his reign. His eldest son, Lee, gets killed off early on, so it’s down to his daughter and two sons. Beth is a foul-mouthed, alcoholic hedge-fund hit woman who uses her numbers savvy and her often literal ball-busting skills to help her father bankrupt his enemies. Jamie is the lawyer in the family, Harvard-educated but lacking (for reasons that unfold) the Dutton DNA, which under a microscope would probably reveal itself to be shaped more like a lariat than a double helix. The youngest, Kayce, is a wild mustang of a man, an ex–Navy Seal fully comfortable with killing. He’s violent but soulful, loaded with PTSD and married to a Native American from the local “rez.” As with HBO’s Succession, Yellowstone’s drama derives from which adult child might be man enough (Beth can more than hold her own with her bros) to fill his father’s cowboy boots.
Who Dutton would really like to leave the ranch to is Rip Wheeler, a burly badass in charge of the ranch hands and the obedient son Dutton never had. “Yes, sir,” is his default reply to any order. Rip was an orphan when Dutton took him in. He’d just killed his father, as retribution for his dad’s having killed his mother and little brother. Dutton instantly saw a prospect he could one day ask to do work too dirty for his natural-born sons. Indeed, Rip has taken more than a few unlucky souls to “the train station.” He rules the bunkhouse, the ranch hands’ dorm, with an iron cattle brand. Cole Hauser’s Rip is, after Costner, the runaway performance of the series, turning on a dime from tough as hardtack to charming and vulnerable. (Fun Fact: Hauser is Jewish, and a descendant of the Warner Brothers.)
Hauser is a standout, but all the casting is dead-on, from the leads to the supporting cowpokes in the bunkhouse. The English actress Kelly Reilly bursts out of her skintight dresses as Beth, an untamed shrew who specializes in first-impression character assassinations, especially of would-be lotharios who make the mistake of trying to hit on her. A high-functioning psychotic, Beth gets up from breakfast chirping, “Off to ruin a life!” and says things to her hated brother Jamie like, “You should really consider killing yourself.” The only man she has a soft spot for, besides her beloved daddy, is Rip. They’ve been friends with benefits since they were teens, and her lips are the only ones that get past the toothpick perennially lodged in his.
Wes Bentley’s unloved and unlovable Jamie is the ultimate worm, desperate for approval from a father who shows more emotion putting down a horse than to his children. “I can’t wait to see which disappointment this is,” Dutton grumbles as a car pulls up at the ranch bearing one of his messed-up progeny. Luke Grimes as Kayce toggles between moodiness and rage, the latter expressed with his fists or whatever automatic weapon he happens to have in his pickup. As the “hot” brother, it’s on him to carry the sex scenes, though the only time my interest really flags is during the tortured-romance stuff with his wife.
The love stories in Yellowstone are well and good, but the real “I’m not crying, you’re crying” moments are between the cowboys. The most moving is Forrie J. Smith, a native Montanan and ex stunt man, as Lloyd, the eminence grise of the bunkhouse who wears his heart on his grey handlebar moustache.
The bunkhouse, by the way, is a brilliant device by Sheridan—pure wish fulfillment for the male viewers. It’s a place you get to hang out with your buddies every night, play poker, insult each other, and knock back “Yellow Jackets,” aka Coors Banquet beers. It’s Central Perk—the coffee shop that fulfilled the same function on Friends—without the neurosis. And more knife fights.
The narrative formula of Yellowstone is familiar enough: Each season, a new “big bad” poses an existential threat to the Dutton Ranch. First, it’s casino-rich Native Americans (led by the excellent Gil Birmingham) plotting to reclaim tribal land, in league with a slick real-estate developer (Danny Huston, also excellent). Then it’s a local casino boss (played by go-to apex predator Neal McDonough), followed by a Wall Street behemoth. Oh, and throw in some armed-to-the-teeth Montana militia to up the body count. Which is considerable. It’s hard to think of a principal character on Yellowstone who hasn’t killed someone, or almost been killed. (Beth was literally blown up in her office—and survived.) Everyone wants Dutton’s vast swath of prime real estate, but they’re going to have to pry it from his cold, dead hands.
Besides the gun porn and vilification of coastal elites, the politics of Yellowstone are way right of anything on narrative TV. But it’s a unique brand of right. A judge who sentences an environmental activist to 10 years in prison tells Dutton, “The cancer of entitlement is eating away at everything. I just snip away at the symptom.” But then, once he’s elected governor, Dutton ends up sleeping with the activist and paroles her to advise him on radical environmental matters. He must really like her because, as governor, one of his first acts is to fire an entire roomful of advisers, saving the state $1.5 million.
In Season One, Dutton goes to war with the local tribe over cattle rustling—it’s what gets his eldest son killed—but Sheridan is deeply sympathetic to the Native American cause. Kayce’s wife lectures at the university about “genocide” and becomes more and more radicalized as the show goes on. So is Yellowstone stolen land, or does it rightfully belong to Dutton? When a busload of Asian tourists wanders from Yellowstone Park onto his ranch to take pictures of a bear, Dutton jumps out of his pickup with a shotgun. An old man scolds him in his native tongue. Dutton squints: “What’s he sayin’?” The tour guide translates: “He says it’s wrong for one man to own all this. He says you should share with all the people.” Dutton unloads both barrels into the sky, sending the tourists scurrying back their bus. “This is America,” he instructs the old man. “We don’t share land here.”
As governor, Dutton makes it clear that this land is our land—it is definitely not your land. By which he means rich outsiders making Montana their vacation playground. In his inaugural speech, he vows to double the property tax, impose a 6 percent sales tax, and add vehicle-registration fees on nonresidents. He cancels a development project that would have brought thousands of jobs to the state, in large part because it would have meant building an airport on his property. He turns down all offers to sell his land, including level-headed entreaties by his children, because the way he sees it, “if someone had all the money in the world, this is what they’d buy.”
If you had to boil it down, Sheridan’s worldview seems to be: “Government and capitalism bad, cowboys and horses good.” He’s at that weird spot on the political spectrum where the far left and the reactionary right meet. And no one knows quite what to make of it, except that every Nielson household with a pickup in the driveway is watching—and a bunch of us with hybrids, too.
HBO’s Succession—with its impeccable liberal pedigree and its portrayal of the pseudo-Murdochs as a nest of vipers—has won 10 Emmys. Yellowstone has won exactly none. This anti-heartland bias may come as no surprise to Sheridan. The show was originally at HBO, Sheridan has said, but the premium cable channel ended up “not going forward” (in industry parlance), because an executive thought it should be about a “park.” To which he replied, “Buddy, you’re the exact reason I’m making this.”
Other networks may have the Emmys. Sheridan has the viewers.
Photos courtesy Paramount Network
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