In the very first scene of Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, rancher John Dutton (Kevin Costner) puts a horse out of its misery by shooting it dead — and then it gets even messier.
Yellowstone is vaguely intriguing on paper. Taylor Sheridan — who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, and was an actor on Sons of Anarchy — serves as creator, writer, and director. It features Kevin Costner in his first regular television series role. It’s also Paramount’s first scripted drama and is tasked with boosting the network after a few disappointments: the mixed bag miniseries Waco, which suffered from shoddy writing; the already-forgettable comedy American Woman; and the truly awful (and fortunately canceled-before-airing) Heathers, which was a mess all its own. (Both comedies, it should be noted, were originally for TV Land.) So that leaves Yellowstone, an “epic” and violent drama about the “largest contiguous cattle ranch in the United States,” to pick up the slack, but it can barely keep itself together long enough to try.
The pilot — a bloated 90 minutes, which is strike one — struggles to find its footing, throwing multiple characters and plots at the wall without giving any of them room to breathe. (I had to fill in multiple blanks via the network’s press kit.) Costner plays patriarch and rancher John Dutton, who is intent on protecting and keeping control of his ranch as he’s frequently targeted by land developers and by the nearby Native American reservation. Or something. Really, Yellowstone is about complicated family dynamics and terrible fathers. You may have already watched a dozen or so dramas with this same premise.
The widowed John has four children: right-hand man Lee (Dave Annable) who still lives at home, Kayce (Luke Grimes) who lives with his own family on the Native American reservation, lawyer Jamie (Wes Bentley) who is still desperate for his dad’s approval, and only daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) who is unfortunately described in the press materials as “holding together a family of broken men.”
The Dutton men are indeed broken, to varying degrees and with varying results, but it’s hard to get past their stereotypical character traits and the poor (but unintentionally funny) dialogue that plagues the series. As one character murders another, execution-style, he plainly remarks, “There’s no such thing as heaven.” In another episode, Beth “jokes” about Jamie being gay by saying their father won’t like it; he retorts with the mouthful, “I’m not gay. I’m celibate because I’m terrified to get someone pregnant and pass on the gene that made you.” (Whether or not Jamie is actually gay is anyone’s guess at this point.) Another strange line delivered with the gravity of something much smarter and deeper comes from John: “All you do with a daughter is just try to keep her from getting screwed. All you do with a son is just try to keep him from screwing himself.” There are moments where it seems Yellowstone started with a list of platitudes and built the plot around that.
To be fair, throughout the first three episodes sent to critics, Yellowstone isn’t all bad — it’s more messy and confused than anything else. It promotes a solid roster of actors who give it their all, even when their all isn’t quite deserved. Kelly Reilly as Beth is the only one having any fun, even as she’s thrust into bizarre scenes like stripping down in front of Jamie or chugging SoCo out of the bottle while running at wolves. (It’s telling that Beth doesn’t feel like part of Yellowstone, like she instead drunkenly wandered on from another set and decided to stick around.) Yellowstone is also a gorgeous series, shot on location in Utah and Montana, featuring sprawling overhead shots of land and mountains. Some wide shots are so skilled at showcasing the beauty of the West that you almost want to move to the ranch — provided the Dutton family has long vacated.
Kayce is the most compelling character as he straddles the line between alienating his own family by marrying the Native American (though the show prefers to use “Indian” throughout) Monica (Kelsey Asbille) while also feeling like a white outsider within her family and while on the reservation. Sure, it can feel a little Romeo and Juliet in the West, but the tensions between the white ranchers and the Native Americans (including Gil Birmingham as Thomas Rainwater) provide the series’ best conflicts.
There is certainly something interesting deep within Yellowstone, and it’s welcoming to see a drama take place out here rather than the usual big cities in New York or California. Unfortunately, the interesting parts are buried underneath the overwrought, hyper-masculine, boring family drama that we’ve already seen a number of times. It’s a strange case because there are soapy elements throughout, but Yellowstone isn’t as self-aware to be as fun as, say, Dynasty. It’s almost enjoyable to watch some of the more ridiculous elements that are sprinkled throughout — wolves, casual meth lab explosions, a standoff between a boy and a snake, and a random discovery of dinosaur fossils — and it’s clear that in another world, Yellowstone could succeed as a true soapy drama. As it stands, it’s just too bogged down by its own self-seriousness.