When watching Yellowstone, Paramount Network’s entry into the world of what once might have been called Prestige TV, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what angle the show is hoping will garner the most recognition. The series, set in modern-day Montana, pits Kevin Costner’s John Dutton, owner of the largest contiguous cattle ranch in the U.S., against growing concerns of expansion and development by outsiders like Danny Huston’s Dan Jenkins, as well as Native Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), who is eager to leverage his conflict with the Dutton family ranch for political purposes. Though the particulars may be unique, the set-up and many of the characters feel distinctly familiar, almost as though Yellowstone arrived on television 10 years too late, as the heavy emphasis on morally compromised characters and difficult men facing adversity and the prospect of a rapidly changing world read as remnants of a television trend already on its last legs back when Ray Donovan first premiered.
Timeliness aside, the show’s primary concerns are in keeping with the work of series co-creator, co-writer, and director Taylor Sheridan, who, after delivering scripts for Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River (which he also directed), and this month’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado, might be as big a draw for this new series as Costner. And from the look of the two-hour premiere, it would seem Paramount is betting heavily on both, not only in an effort to get audiences talking, but also to get them thinking differently about the recently re-branded network formerly known as Spike.
Yellowstone begins with a sequence that labors under the burden of its own overt symbolism. The scene opens in medias res, minutes after Costner’s Dutton survived a deadly collision with a truck carrying heavy equipment for Jenkins’ planned Paradise Valley development project. A bleeding Dutton approaches an injured horse he was presumably transporting and, drawing his six-shooter, says a few poignant words before ending the creature’s suffering. As the sound of sirens approach in the distance, the camera fixes on Dutton as he recovers his cowboy hat from the wreckage and waits for the authorities to arrive, arms slung almost casually over a split-rail fence near the highway. The metaphor is abundantly clear, and so is the nature of the show itself. If you were unsure what kind of show Yellowstone was going to be, well, it’s certainly not one that leans toward subtlety.
Sheridan earns points for beginning his story with such transparency, though. The show immediately stakes a claim as thoroughly middlebrow entertainment, which works for Yellowstone in ways that are both good and bad. Sheridan’s script takes itself, its characters, and its subject matter seriously, but in the early going struggles to elevate those elements in a way that breaks new ground. There are a number of familiar beats here; the series is surprisingly as evocative of Dallas as it is Sheridan’s old TV stomping grounds, Sons of Anarchy, leaving viewers with a soapy melodrama whose execution is not quite on par with its narrative ambitions.
Those ambitions concern the whole of the Dutton family, which is comprised of John and his four adult children, Lee (Dave Annable), Jamie (Wes Bentley), Beth (Kelly Reilly), and Cory (Luke Grimes). With the exception of Luke, who lives and works on the reservation with his wife Monica (Kelsey Asbille) and their young son, the three other Dutton children serve (or will serve, by the premiere’s end) some function with their father’s business.
Grimes is perhaps the most believable cowboy aside from Costner, a detail that helps underscore the tension between the estranged father and son. Annable fulfills his onscreen duty fine, as his role is more in service to the plot than anything. Bentley, meanwhile, rightfully looks out of place whenever he’s not in a suit or a courtroom. The disparity between Bentley and Grimes serves to distinguish the varying levels of involvement the two have in their father’s endeavors — right or wrong — and the distinction sets the stage for a potential philosophical conflict down the road.
Of all the Dutton children, though, it’s Reilly’s Beth, a cutthroat businesswoman, who stands out the most. That’s mainly due to how over the top the performance and the manner in which she’s written are. In the character’s sneering ruthlessness and animosity toward everyone but her father and youngest brother it’s as though Beth emerged from a completely different show, say, True Detective season 2. There’s a humorous quality to Beth, one that, given the restrained and determined-to-be-weighty performances of everyone else, makes the comedy comes across as unintentional, at least at this point in the series. Beth’s seduction of the brilliantly named Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), a bearded henchman of her father’s who has a penchant for branding men like cattle, is so clumsy in its set up and delivery, and Beth is so unrelentingly caustic in her interaction with him, it borders on farce.
Maybe the emergence of fluky comedy is what the show is going for — who knows? If so, that might not be a bad thing, as Yellowstone’s otherwise grave demeanor could use the occasional reminder to lighten up once in a while. It’s not like the show hasn’t already set such a precedence with Huston’s unscrupulous land developer. Whether in Magic City or Wonder Woman, Huston is seemingly game to chew the scenery for the sake of his art, and here his interpretation of Jenkins is so flagrant in his lust for wealth and power you half expect to see a group of nosey teens and a talking dog just waiting to take him down.
Despite the considerable boost it gets from Costner’s dependable presence and solid performance, Yellowstone’s ambitions ultimately outstrip its execution. The characters, conflict, and tone are all too reminiscent of similar series that’ve come before, and Yellowstone’s biggest advantages, it’s setting and the tensions of the various political, commercial, and cultural interests in and around Montana, Yellowstone, and the Dutton ranch, are unfortunately put to use in surprisingly pedestrian fashion.
Yellowstone airs Wednesdays @9pm on Paramount Network.