A TV series named after a place carries with it certain expectations. When Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta was first announced, it felt impossible for a show to be able to express all of the varied aspects of life in a city as diverse as Atlanta, and when it arrived, it showed that it wasn’t interested in trying. Atlanta focused in on a specific experience that was contextualized by its larger environment. The same is true for Comedy Central’s joyous Detroiters, and for the soapy ABC (now CMT) series Nashville. But Paramount Network’s Yellowstone seems to want to encompass everything about this particular area of Montana right off the bat: ranchers, reservations, politics, developers, the national park, and more. It adds up to an incredible number of storylines, only a few of which are truly compelling.
Yellowstone was created by, written, and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who — with films like Wind River, Sicario, and Hell or High Water — has made a career from telling difficult stories that take place on difficult terrain. Yellowstone is no different in that regard. The setting is wild, beautiful, and untamed. Those who live there can live a hard life, knowing that they only have their families and their communities to rely on, with towns, resources, and law enforcement often far away. If there is a romance about this sometimes isolated way of life, though, Sheridan doesn’t allow it to linger. There are a few scenes of serene or moving moments upon this landscape, but in his telling, they are not typical or anything other than brief.
The 10-episode series focuses on the Dutton family, led by stoic patriarch John, played by Kevin Costner. He has a brood of sons with a variety of talents, from his eldest Lee (Dave Annable) who is the heir to their massive ranch, to the politically-minded attorney Jamie (Wes Bentley), and then the outsider cowboy Kacey (Luke Grimes), who has married a woman from the reservation (Kelsey Asbille) and lives there with her and her family. Dutton also has a daughter, Beth (Kelly Reilly), a booze and pills-soaked mess who returns home to the ranch to help her father fight his adversaries, which seem to surround him.
Those adversaries include the aforementioned reservation, the national park, and developers, all of whom are looking to encroach upon Dutton’s land (a parcel which we’re told is larger than the state of Rhode Island). Control of the land, jurisdiction, and boundaries dominate the first three episodes available to critics, as Dutton and his sons attempt to use their family influence to control everything from the politics of the area to the sermons of the priests. None of it is easy, none of it is pretty, and a violent death that kicks the series off really sets the tone not only for the bloodbath that will continue throughout, but also to paint a picture of life here as a tough experience. Yellowstone never misses an opportunity to remind us that this is a gritty series, and in doing so, leans in too heavily to tough-guy stereotypes and hard-boiled cliches.
Because of that, it’s difficult to like anyone in the series. That’s not a requirement for good drama — HBO’s one percenter-series Succession is a show that makes us care about what’s happening to a despicable group of people without actually caring what happens to each of them individually. Yellowstone only provides us, so far, with one compelling story: Kacey’s. And yet, it also makes it hard to believe that he is more or less forced to kill people every single episode out of righteous causes. Toughness and grit can be conveyed without death as a constant, even if it happens in the name of justice.
The workings of the ranch, like the breaking-in of horses, or scenes of rodeos or cowboy life, are genuinely interesting to watch not only for the story but in the filming itself. There’s an extended scene of a new cowboy who is duct-taped to a bucking stallion, and it’s some truly outstanding stunt work. In a rodeo scene, a bull rider and clowns appear to be gored by an angry bull, but it’s treated as a passing concern for Dutton and his friends watching in the stands. These scenes of Western life tell a story without needing to be a part of twisted political plots and horrific backstories that Yellowstone also provides the the start. Sheridan has a talent for presenting this land as it is, the good and the ugly, just through his camerawork. He also, laudably and essentially, incorperates the stories of the native peoples living on these lands. But again, the focused stories of the families that Kacey knows and interacts with (and the complications that arise) are far more interesting than the plotting from a figure like casino-owner Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), who is more or less at war with Dutton. It doesn’t help, either, that many of the characters seem like they were imported from different TV shows, with actors unsure of how over-the-top they should be.
Like Paramount’s recent limited series Waco — a brutal tale about a true and shameful event in U.S. history — Yellowstone is stocked with a great cast, and occasionally has great moments. But there are far more that fall short, and that unevenness makes the series a hard one to recommend outright or dislike totally. Yellowstone feels like a missed opportunity to investigate what life looks like, on a more intimate level, for those who live and work in this wild country, instead of a sprawling socio-political entanglement that is wrapped up in a family soap opera. There are wonderfully moving scenes, and gorgeously captured moments of both the highs and the horrors of the land. For every scene like the brothers fishing together in a sparking stream and cooking out over a campfire, there’s one that counters it, like a meth lab exploding or drug runners who kidnap a girl and plan to leave her for dead. For every horse galloping across the plains, there’s a rattlesnake attack, or for each successfully delivered calf there’s a tractor accident. The balance that Sheridan finds here can be a good thing, but it can also be emotionally exhausting. There’s no clear direction, or much hope for how things might turn out for our key players. And that says it all — Yellowstone could be beautiful, if it weren’t for the people.
Yellowstone premieres Wednesday, June 20th on the Paramount Network.