Tuesday, June 19, 2018

TV REVIEW: Paramount's 'Yellowstone'

Paramount will debut its new original drama series Yellowstone on Wednesday, June 20 at 9/8c. The drama stars Kevin Costner, Luke Grimes, Wes Bentley, Kelly Reilly, Cole Hauser, Kelsey Asbille, Dave Annable, Jefferson White, Gil Birmingham and Danny Huston.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its first three episodes.

Yellowstone is the first scripted series made specifically for the Paramount Network. It's not the first scripted show to air on the channel after the rebrand from Spike TV earlier this year. But it's the first show that was earmarked for the channel after Viacom made the announcement that it wanted a prestige cable channel. It was the company's way of competing with AMC, FX, TNT and USA when it comes to critical attention and public conversation. The pickup of Yellowstone sent the message that this was the type of talent in front of and behind the camera that the network wanted to do business with. Taylor Sheridan has become an acclaimed screenwriter over the last few years with Sicario and its sequel, Hell or High Water (which earned him an Academy Award nomination for original screenplay) and Wind River. He is the writer and director of all ten episodes of the first season of Yellowstone - with John Linson getting the occasional "story by" credit as well. Moreover, Academy Award winner Kevin Costner toplines the drama in his first series regular role on television. He is just the latest actor from film to make the transition to television in order to tell all of the captivating stories that now exist in this business model. Because of the talent involved with the show, it's honestly surprising that Paramount hasn't just blindly ordered a second season before the first premieres in order to establish buzz and confirm to the audience that this is a world worth investing in because the stories will continue to be told. Of course, there's a lot riding on the premiere of Yellowstone as well. Paramount hasn't really emerged as the key destination in the era of Peak TV just yet. Waco and American Woman had mostly middling reviews and didn't set the cable charts on fire with their ratings - though both did respectable enough numbers too. Meanwhile, so much controversy swirled around the Heathers remake with the network first delaying the premiere following the Parkland shooting and then scrapping the already completed season all together in an attempt to be more sensitive regarding the subject matter. As such, Yellowstone needs to be a hit so that the channel can actually grow. No, one hit doesn't make a network. But it's also a solid stepping stone to get even more people through the door to want to enter into a creative partnership with Paramount.

As such, it's incredibly problematic that Yellowstone isn't all that good. It's fine. It's completely serviceable for what it is trying to be. It's just not original. It's not the next breakout hit of television that will completely demand attention from everyone for the bold story it is telling. In fact, it's surprising just how formulaic and familiar the main story actually is. That's shocking coming from Sheridan because his recent movies have done such a wonderful job in subverting expectations and flipping the storytelling norms on their heads. Yes, there are some fascinating ideas at the heart of this show. But too often they are following a pattern that has already been played out in television for the past twenty years. It's basically the latest example of a show with an anti-hero as the lead. It's trying to copy the same success of The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Many shows have tried to copy that formula. Not many of them have actually worked out. Even if they do, they typically reframed the story a little bit to change the perspective so it's not the same kind of story that was told in the past. That's what allowed Halt and Catch Fire to develop into a success after starting as nothing but a Mad Men clone set in the 1980s. Yellowstone is set in present-day Montana but it feels dated. It definitely has strands of Dallas and Sons of Anarchy in its DNA as well. And yet, it doesn't quite know how to balance those impulses. It wants to be a super serious show that sees the actions of the main characters only create more problems for them. But when the show has a sense of awareness and playfulness, it's at its most entertaining even though that frequently stands in stark contrast to everything else.

Costner's John Dutton is the owner of the largest ranch in the United States. It's a 200,000 square mile property in Montana. At its borders, there is the Yellowstone National Park, an Indian reservation and lands of property being swept up by land developers in the hopes of expanding the local communities. It's a ranch that John is trying to preserve from near constant invaders who are trying to get a piece of it for themselves to expand their own ambitions in the region. The Dutton family also includes four children who all have varying relationships with their father. Beth (Kelly Reilly) is a businesswoman who lives primarily out of the state and who doesn't care about the ranch at all but is blindly loyal to her father. Jamie (Wes Bentley) is the family lawyer constantly looking for his father's approval and may finally be able to start his own life with a career in politics. Lee (Dave Annable) is the heir-apparent to the ranch because he actually wants to work it but doesn't have the same natural abilities in leading the family through times of turmoil from outside threats. And finally, Kayce (Luke Grimes) is the son who left the family - first for the navy and second to the reservation where he nows lives with his Indian wife and their son. This world is pulling the family together and apart. A bunch of plot complications happen in the premiere that force the family to pick sides. John is facing two significant threats from the community. The first comes from the newly elected leader of the reservation, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), who hopes to buy back the land that was taken from his ancestors in this region. The second is from Californian developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) who wants to continue building up subdivisions without the same safety standards he's bogged down with elsewhere in the country. Those are the basic plot functions of the show. It keeps everyone busy for the opening three episodes. However, the show is yet to really present a strong and compelling hook that makes it entertaining and compelling to watch.

The grand metaphor of the show seems to be the amorality of everyone involved in their attempts to find and hold onto their American Dream. John is trying to protect his way of life on this land because it has been in his family for generations. He's not going to be the Dutton who gives it all away. He's aggressive and condones criminal actions to hurt those who jeopardize his family. It all comes from his selfish desires too. He doesn't genuinely care about protecting the environment from these developers who plan on polluting it and making ranching much more difficult to do. He sees the development of this land as the death of his livelihood. So, he's fighting to avoid that for as long as possible. John sees himself as the hero of that story even though he also represents the men who stole this land in the first place from the people who rightfully earned it. Rainwater just wants to get back what belongs to his people. It's important to note though that he didn't grow up in this community. He is just as shady and manipulative with his actions as well. There's no easy character to sympathize with or root for in this entire story. It just shows a bunch of bad people fighting over a parcel of land that they cherish for unique and individual reasons. And caught up in all of this is Kayce who is pulled into so many different directions because of his conflicting interests. He has to balance loyalty to the family he was born into and faith in the family he created and their identity in the world. As such, there are all of the fundamentals to make this a compelling story. It's just super grim and serious all of that time. That lessens the impact until it becomes unintentionally funny when a character blows up a tree stump and makes a surprising discovery underneath in the second episode. It should be hilarious but instead it's used as a vague metaphor to talk about the legacy of humanity and the desire to make all of this mean something centuries from now.