Taylor Sheridan’s work is full of cowboys. They don’t always wear hats and ride horses. Some of them live in the city. But they all live by a code of individualism and defiance, from John Dutton (Kevin Costner), the rancher and patriarch at the center of the cable juggernaut Yellowstone, to Mike McLusky (Jeremy Renner), the volatile fixer who keeps a Michigan town’s prison system working from the outside in Mayor of Kingstown. These are bloody tales of pride and vengeance, peopled by stubborn men and women determined to maintain ways of life that often seem barbaric. There’s no shortage of violence in Sheridan’s world; his heroes live by primal instincts as much as negotiation. When there’s a prison break on Mayor of Kingstown, as there was recently, you can bet it’s the most brutal prison break you’ve ever seen.
Now comes 1883 (airing on Paramount Network, like Sheridan’s other shows), the Yellowstone prequel, which is actually set on the frontier. Featuring Tim McGraw as John Dutton’s ancestor, James, and Sam Elliott as tough guy/grieving widower Shea Brennan, the show tracks a rough journey westward from Fort Worth—depicted as a brawl just waiting to happen—to Montana, where Yellowstone takes place in the present day. It’s not as pulpy as Yellowstone, which paints in broader strokes and delivers swifter satisfaction, though it will likely appeal to a similar audience. A running joke among younger wags is that only their parents watch Yellowstone. The action is a long way from the big city.
With locations including Fort Worth, Weatherford, and Granbury, 1883 is the rare Texas story that was shot, at least in part, in Texas. (Filmmakers looking to capture a Lone Star flavor often decamp to New Mexico, where tax incentives are more alluring.) Sheridan, 51, is from Cranfills Gap, a small town in Central Texas, and some of his best screenplays have been set in the state, including the 2016 West Texas heist thriller Hell or High Water, for which Sheridan earned an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. He’s assembled an informal troupe of actors who regularly appear in Sheridan projects, including Kelsey Asbille; Hugh Dillon, with whom Sheridan created Mayor of Kingstown; Renner; San Antonio–born Gil Birmingham; Tokala Black Elk; and James Jordan.
Sheridan’s biggest hit, and the most-watched show on television across all platforms last fall, is Yellowstone, which he cocreated with John Linson. Since premiering in 2018 on Paramount Network, it hasn’t really rung critics’ bells, or set the Twitterati chattering. The show doesn’t have the hipster cachet of HBO’s Succession. What it does have is Costner, bringing a dark edge to his Gary Cooper–esque, everyman persona as a rancher who will do anything to keep the forces of modernity away from his considerable chunk of land. If that means murder, then that means murder.
It’s bloody, but it’s also soapy, in a Shakespearean kind of way; one thing Yellowstone does have in common with Succession is a big debt to King Lear. John Dutton has three adult children: the intensely loyal, business-savvy-but-more-or-less-insane Beth (Kelly Reilly), the selfish and anguished Jamie (Wes Bentley), and the favorite son Kayce (Luke Grimes). There’s also Rip (Cole Hauser), the strong and silent adopted cowhand. Together they juggle multiple threats against Yellowstone Ranch—bankers, developers, bikers—as they wonder, along with viewers, who will inherit the keys to the kingdom (or if the kingdom will last).
1883 is less brutal, or at least less guided by vengeance, through its first few episodes. Hired to guide a large party of ill-prepared Scandinavian immigrants from Texas to the West, Elliott’s Shea, grieving the death of his family from smallpox, teams up with his partner Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) and McGraw’s James Dutton for the rough trek westward.
Early on, they find themselves in Hell’s Half Acre, Fort Worth’s notorious red-light district, where pickpockets get shot in the back and strung up in public. Dutton is meeting his family in Fort Worth, but he gets a bit of advice from the man in charge of storing his wagon and horses: “You don’t want your family here. You should go to Dallas.” It’s a funny line for anyone who takes sides in the eternal Dallas–Fort Worth rivalry. So is this one, uttered by Billy Bob Thornton’s Marshal Jim Courtright, as he walks into a saloon and rids the town of some bandits: “There’s only one killer in Fort Worth, and that’s me.” These moments bring a little levity to the grim proceedings, especially for those Texans watching.
But 1883 also traffics in a bit of Lone Star exceptionalism, courtesy in large part of the show’s seventeen-year-old narrator, Elsa Dutton (Isabel May). The daughter of James and his wife Margaret (McGraw’s real-life wife and fellow recording star Faith Hill), Elsa is given to rhapsodic descriptions of the Texas plains. “I do not know what the word ‘Texas’ means,” she tells us. “To me, it means magic.” Or: “The whole of Texas spread out before me. It was the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen.” These lines come off like bad, made-for-TV Terrence Malick; they momentarily sap whatever grit and realism the show has accumulated. They’re more suited to the Texas Travel Alliance than a western.
If a prequel makes sense for any TV franchise, it’s Yellowstone. Aside from the show’s massive popularity, the Duttons are the stuff of American myth, and American myths deserve origin stories. If that origin story develops on the frontier, where so many of our myths were spawned, then all the better. In Yellowstone, everyone seems to end up with blood on their hands. Set in the present, like most Sheridan fare, it lives by a code of the past. Even its white collars end up dirty. But Sheridan’s worlds aren’t whitewashed. Thomas, Shea’s partner, is a former Buffalo Soldier. In Yellowstone, John’s most respected adversary is Thomas Rainwater (played by Birmingham, who has Comanche heritage), chief of the Broken Rock Reservation, who operates under the principle that the land belonged to his people first and he’s not about to give it up.
Themes of the classic western run through Sheridan’s work: westward expansion (which is the central theme of 1883), defiance, loneliness, violence. Nothing is easy for the characters, regardless of which century they’re trying to tame. Meanwhile, their creator stands astride his own little empire, encompassing big screen and small. Critics don’t necessarily ignore that empire; most of Sheridan’s big-screen work has been warmly received, especially Hell or High Water. But Yellowstone has somehow been unofficially tagged as red-state TV. Maybe it’s because your dad watches (or watched) westerns. Maybe it’s all the horses. In any case, Yellowstone is well worth a binge. The storytelling is sharp, the performances are lively, and the details of ranch-life subculture are finely detailed. If 1883 can build into something equally rich, dads everywhere will have cause to rejoice.