So as I was saying when I reviewed Taylor Sheridan’s Mayor of Kingstown last month, the Yellowstone creator makes bombastic, macho throwbacks, shows that your uncle or father might celebrate because “they don’t make ’em like this anymore.” To be more specific, though, Sheridan makes shows (and movies) that are classic Westerns without actually necessarily being Westerns. Yellowstone, or features like Sicario or Hell or High Water, have the geography and character archetypes of a Western, brought into the present day for a slight revisionist twist. Even something that isn’t a clear genre match, like Mayor of Kingstown, finds Sheridan exploring issues of justice — inevitably a kind of frontier justice that remains intact even if the protagonists drive cars instead of cattle and wield cell phones instead of a Winchester.
If there’s anything notable about 1883, Sheridan’s latest Paramount+ drama, it isn’t that it’s a Yellowstone prequel; other than several characters sharing the last name “Dutton,” connections are of the Easter egg variety. It’s that the series is actually a straightforward period Western and not even of the revisionist variety. The pilot begins with a group of ultra-generic Native Americans brutally attacking a wagon convoy, an in medias res scene so packed with stereotypes I’m praying an unanticipated twist will be unveiled before the main narrative catches up. The rest of the series is a lot of drawling cowpokes, expertly adjusted Stetsons and talk of dangerous gun-toting mobs. Sheridan’s thesis can be quickly summarized as “Man, the Old West was rough,” which is sure to come as a revelation to anybody who hasn’t seen a Clint Eastwood film, Deadwood or played Oregon Trail.
The Bottom Line
Genre cliches, mumbling and banal voiceover obscure potential.
The pilot begins with the Dutton family arriving in Ft. Worth, Texas. James (Tim McGraw) arrives via wagon after shooting up a gang of outlaws to prove his toughness to the audience, with the rest of the clan — wife Margaret (Faith Hill), daughter Elsa (Isabel May) and son John (Audie Rick), plus dyspeptic sister Claire (Dawn Olivieri) and her sullen daughter Mary (Emma Malouff) — following via train. Their plan is to head north to unsettled land and take up ranching. James’ ease with a gun catches the attention of Shea (Sam Elliott) and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), salty veterans who hope the Duttons will help them lead a gang of German immigrants with negligible survival skills, at least part of the way to Oregon.
There’s no clear reason why the central family has to be the Duttons. Sheridan doesn’t pander to the established audience from Yellowstone by, for example, beginning the show with Kevin Costner sitting with a yellowed photo album and announcing, “You’re probably wondering how I got here…” It’s a needless Trojan horse. Has Costner’s Yellowstone character ever mentioned that one of his female relatives was a bad author?
Because that’s the other Trojan horse here. For all of the bigger names and genre veterans onscreen, 1883 is actually Elsa’s story. Somewhat. Kinda. Elsa provides 1883 with a voiceover and with its curious outsider’s perspective, that of a plucky, resourceful teen getting caught up in Manifest Destiny, with threats of rape and death around every bend.
The two-pronged flaw: First, Elsa’s voiceover is just horribly overwritten and banal without any real clarification as to whether Sheridan thinks he’s written something profound or he thinks this is the way teenage girls wrote in their diaries in 1883 or what. That flaw is amplified because Sheridan has badly confused giving a character an internal monologue with offering a perspective from that character. Elsa’s take on the world begins and ends at “drawled wonderment” and she’s narrating an adventure that largely doesn’t involve her.
Elsa’s segments of the show — while plagued by Sheridan’s tendency to build drama around women exclusively by putting them in physical jeopardy and to build respect for women exclusively by having characters appreciate their manly attributes — aren’t bad. May, like Hill, looks anachronistically modern in style and affect, but as mother-daughter, they at least match. They’re less worrisome characters to explore than James, because it’s doubtful 1883 is going to have a good explanation for putting a former Confederate officer front-and-center — not that a lecture on states’ rights would be out-of-place amid Sheridan’s tumbleweed libertarianism.
A show about a teenage girl facing the barbarism of the expanding American landscape could be a good one. It would basically be an R-rated Little House on the Prairie and I’d probably want more involvement from female writers and directors, but what would be wrong with that? Instead, Sheridan wants us to think Elsa’s at the center of the story, but she keeps getting lost in the mumbled, inconsistently accented conversations between various gruff men. Say this for Sheridan: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a writer, especially a writer prone to florid turns of phrase, so uninterested in whether or not audiences will be able to understand his dialogue.
The only character in 1883 who is consistently comprehensible is Shea and I can’t emphasize enough how much unearned credibility the series gets from Elliott’s performance. He’s the rare actor who is equally convincing when he isn’t saying a word — when Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson can simply trace the experience through his craggy face — as when he’s shouting in that husky voice we trust to tell us which meat is for dinner or what The Dude has been up to. Shea is a man tortured by grief who just wants to see the wide-open spaces one last time before going to meet his maker, and Elliott is a simmering, bellowing, occasionally sobbing delight. Garrett hasn’t been given nearly as much to do, but there’s an odd-couple energy to those two characters that could sustain its own show and also gets usurped by the marble-mouthed throngs.
Some of the actors hidden in the throngs are weirdly recognizable, or at least their names are. The second episode includes already spoiled cameos from a pair of Oscar winners and it would be easy to half-watch it and miss both of them — and even easier to notice both and then be unsure what quality was added through their presence. The first of the actors, appearing for less than two minutes and delivering only three lines (one a duplicate), adds so little you’d think Sheridan was daring Emmy voters, notoriously idiotic when it comes to guest acting categories, to throw away a nomination on a beloved A-lister based on stature alone.
The first couple of episodes are a bad attempt to do Deadwood-style revisionism and the third is a bland attempt to do a straightforward Western, stripping some of the — forgive me — dead wood from the ensemble and adding just a little romance and very limited comedy to the bleak nihilism. Sheridan’s target audience will probably already be invested long before then and those with initially casual interest will have previously checked out.