In some ways, “Yellowstone” is an embodiment of Taylor Sheridan’s core attributes as a writer. Lush, rolling landscapes set the scene for a starkly violent story. Beautiful actors are torn down to their barest forms, depicting rugged men and women who couldn’t care less about box office totals or post-premiere parties. These are real people with meaningful priorities; priorities bigger than themselves.
In “Sicario,” it’s one woman trying to find justice in an unjust war. In “Hell or High Water,” it’s two brothers robbing banks in order to get by in a broken economy. In “Yellowstone,” Sheridan broadens his scope to an entire family — presumably, to provide more narrative fodder for television’s elongated stories — and the larger-than-life force they’re working for and against is the land itself. The Duttons have made Montana their home and intend to keep it that way, no matter what a prosperous and power-hungry contingent of indigenous Americans have to say about it.
Yet it’s in this centuries-old conflict that Sheridan loses his way, as well as his expanded focus. So much of “Yellowstone” seems needlessly morbid and painfully paced. It’s like a car wreck in slow-motion, which makes the opening scene of a fatal collision between trucks and horse trailers all the more telling. Jarring in its compositions — and featuring one shot viewers won’t soon forget — the series’ introduction doesn’t really earn its brutality. Death haunts the first three episodes, though rarely are any of them felt so much as they’re manifested for the prestige of it all.
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Kevin Costner stars as John Dutton, an absurdly wealthy cowboy who owns the largest contiguous cattle ranch in America. A widower and father of four children, John’s money doesn’t keep him from being a man of the people — swinging into cattle auctions and sleeping in a horse stable — nor does it protect him from hardship. His wife died years prior, and he still wears the wounds on the brims of his many cowboy hats. One son, Kayce (Luke Grimes), is estranged and refuses to let John see his grandson. Within the first episode (a 90-minute behemoth), there’s more tragedy coming.
Despite a peaceful setting in a profession most people would consider conflict-free, John is besieged on all sides. The closest town is expanding and wants to buy his land for residential development. There’s nowhere else for them to turn, considering the nation’s first national park needs to preserve what it can. Plus, thanks to a profitable chain of casinos, there’s a wealthy indigenous American who wants to push John out of power and out of the state, if he can.
Thomas Rainwater (played by Gil Birmingham) is, at first, a character offering necessary perspective. He complains of the restrictions placed on his people and sees his business as a means to expand not only their populace, but their influence on the state as a whole. He has bigger plans for his money than big houses and luxury items. Thomas wants to reset the power balance to what it was before the continent was colonized. “I’m the opposite of progress,” he tells John. “I’m the past catching up with you.”
Considering how often America’s farmers and ranchers are framed as the last vestiges of the country’s foundation, Thomas serves as a pertinent reminder of how far back the relevant history extends. Yet instead of embracing his complexities and engaging in a reparation-based discussion, the series makes it easy to see Thomas as a villain; maybe his ideas are sound, but his methods are immoral. John may be the white man hoarding land stolen from Thomas’ ancestors, but the dirt under his fingernails isn’t as muddy as his opponent’s.
Not much more can be said about their personal-turned-political battle without spoiling the first episode, but it’s safe to say their relationship devolves more than it evolves after a defining moment in the premiere. Beyond the potential within the dynamic between these two, “Yellowstone” is almost entirely hollow. They’re not just bad men (and one woman), but predominantly uninteresting characters. John’s children are one-dimensional, and the actors playing them struggle to add depth. Grimes fares the best, though Kayce’s consistently extreme actions don’t gel with the heroic neutral party he’s meant to embody. Wes Bentley’s Jamie Dutton, the family lawyer with ambitions to run for attorney general, is so simple you’ll side with his troll of a sister when she starts hitting him in the face just to provoke a reaction.
That being said, Kelly Reilly’s character, Beth Dutton, is both chock full of “lone female character in a gritty drama” clichés — hard-drinking, tough-talking, daddy’s girl with as many nude scenes as scenes all about serving other characters’ whims — and intent on bucking them for the sake of shock value. When she goes on a first date with the bad boy rancher, she runs screaming at wolves instead of sharing anything meaningful in conversation. There’s symbolism in her actions and greater heft in her backstory, but Beth feels like a splintering stick used to prop up everyone else’s drama when she can’t even support herself.
Prestige is what everyone is looking for in the rolling mountains of Montana, but no one finds it. “Yellowstone” is Sheridan’s first TV show, Costner’s first series regular role, and Paramount Network’s first drama series. With the Oscar-nominated scribe penning each episode and directing every entry — not to mention the Oscar-winning Costner as the ensemble’s guiding star — “Yellowstone” is made up of components that turn heads. Even the setting is enough to leave you gazing in wonder, but that’s just good location scouting, not grand storytelling. New networks (or rebranded networks) often need noticeable pedigree to attract attention, but they don’t need a dud. This geyser never goes off.
“Yellowstone” premieres Wednesday, June 20 at 9 p.m. ET on Paramount Network.