There aren’t any good guys in the Paramount Network’s new drama Yellowstone—or, at least, there aren’t any good guys that I can see. Everyone is horrible in his or her own way, from wealthy rancher John Dutton (Kevin Costner) to city-slicker land developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) to scheming Native chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham). It’s a show about the unbreakable wills of powerful men colliding in the Great American West, and it’s the sort of story that writer/director Taylor Sheridan seems eminently suited for.
Sheridan, once an actor on Sons of Anarchy, made the transition to screenwriter with a spectacular triple crown: He wrote 2015’s Sicario and 2016’s Hell or High Water, then directed his first feature with 2017’s Wind River. All three movies derived their substantial strengths from Sheridan’s excellent screenplays, which placed thoughtfully drawn characters in difficult, realistic situations. Their high-stakes stories dealt with some of the most complicated and challenging issues in contemporary America—drugs, immigration, the financial crisis, and the uninvestigated murders of Native American women—without didacticism or moralizing.
In the absence of any moral compass or sympathetic characters, Yellowstone becomes an almost crass display of ultra-rich Montanans behaving badly in front of impossibly beautiful landscapes.
That light touch might be a liability in Yellowstone. Sheridan’s observational style of storytelling, adjusted for the long-form TV format, feels aimless during the show’s first three episodes. In the absence of any moral compass or sympathetic characters, Yellowstone becomes an almost crass display of ultra-rich Montanans behaving badly in front of impossibly beautiful landscapes. Maybe Sheridan’s ordinarily sharp ear for dialogue was blunted by the sheer quantity of material he needed to fill a 10-episode season of television, as the scripts are routinely filled with clunkers and clichés. More often than not, the show devolves into camp—I doubt I’m the first person to refer to it as “Hill-Billions.”
This may, of course, simply be a case of a young show still figuring out what it wants to be. I think Yellowstone—which, confusingly, is named after Dutton’s ranch and not the nearby national park—could work best as the high-strung soap opera it keeps hinting at. There are some fun things at play: Costner, squinting and growling through his line readings, is fantastic at playing a giant dick, and whenever the show lapses into outdoorsman-porn, with beautiful scenes of riding, fishing, and horse breaking, well, I am here for it. (Sensitive souls, be warned: As in the real West, the events that transpire in Yellowstone are rarely kind to animals.)
But other elements suck—specifically, Dutton’s children. Luke Grimes, as Dutton’s son Kayce, might be the closest thing Yellowstone has to a white hat. A former Navy SEAL who’s married a Native woman and turned his back on the family business, he’s meant to be tough and courageous, but comes off as unbearably bland. And Kelly Reilly, as daughter Beth, is a disaster of a character. She’s a boozy, pill-popping, open-bathrobed train wreck with a steel-trap mind for business. To Reilly’s credit, she fully commits to this ridiculous persona, but that doesn’t make it any less cringe-y to watch.
Yellowstone is the big, splashy coming-out show for the Paramount Network, which is in the midst of a rebrand from its former incarnation as Spike TV. It’s a high-profile debut, but so far, the show seems more like a writing exercise for Sheridan, who slam-dunked his first three movies and now wants to see if he can do the same with an entire TV series. The upcoming sequel to Sicario, the Sheridan-scripted Day of the Soldado, feels similarly unnecessary, as the first Sicario was a complete, perfectly executed cinematic thought. Maybe Yellowstone and Soldado are evidence of an ambitious writer/director biting off more than he can chew. But if anyone’s earned the right to try, it’s Sheridan.