Before he was an acclaimed screenwriter of movies like Hell or High Water and Sicario, Taylor Sheridan was a working actor, most famously as the chief of police on the first few seasons of Sons of Anarchy. With Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, his first TV series as a writer and director, Sheridan has, intentionally or subconsciously, transplanted the SOA narrative formula to the wilds of Montana.
The series, which debuts on June 20 (I’ve seen the first three episodes), is another tale of an outlaw clan – semi-outlaw, anyway, with Kevin Costner as Montana rancher John Dutton, whose wealth and power allows the family to get away with murder (sometimes literally) – determined to preserve their way of life while beset on all sides (by a local Native chief played by Gil Birmingham and a slick developer played by Danny Huston). Dutton and his children (played by Kelly Reilly, Wes Bentley, Luke Grimes and Dave Annable) have a knack for creating three new problems with each one they solve through chicanery or outright violence. And whenever they need a few moments to brood over the latest terrible thing they’ve done, there’s a music montage at the ready. You have to swap in horses for motorcycles and Stetsons for leather vests, but the structural echoes of Sheridan’s days as Deputy Chief Hale are everywhere.
Sheridan’s movies are familiar but tight and thoughtful genre pieces. Expanding his stories out to eight hours gives them a more mechanical, wearying feeling as the characters keep cutting new heads off of the narrative hydra. Sheridan wrote and directed all eight episodes, and the series offers beautiful location photography (in both Utah and Montana) and some fine performances by Costner, Birmingham (who had memorable roles in both Hell or High Water and Sheridan’s Wind River), and others. In particular, Kelly Reilly provides a jolt as the Dutton’s damaged, foul-mouthed daughter Beth, even though – or perhaps because – she seems to have wandered in from another, more self-aware show.
(She’s also responsible, directly or indirectly, for whatever humor drifts into the show’s margins. At one point, Beth tells an interested cowhand, played by Cole Hauser, to tailor a date to her personality; “Wanna go get drunk, and watch some wolves kill an elk in a park?” he suggests, to her instant approval.)
Wind River also spent a lot of time on an Indian reservation, and the characters we meet on this one – either through Birmingham’s ambitious chief or via Grimes as Dutton’s prodigal son, who has married into the tribe – feel inherently more interesting and sympathetic than the Duttons. (The three Dutton sons are all fairly one-note.) This may be the point of it all – Dutton will go to extremes to stop his version of Montana from being stolen by the city slickers, even though his people stole it in the first place – and Yellowstone would be far from the first cable drama about a man who believes himself the hero of his own story, when really he’s the villain.
But the familiarity of Yellowstone is more often a bug than a feature.