From one despicable, power-mad family to the next — can’t TV’s rich people manage to get along and conduct their business on the up-and-up? The answer, of course, is always no.
Still freshly depressed by HBO’s “Succession,” a coldhearted drama about siblings jockeying for control of their ailing father’s international media empire, we look yonder toward Montana, for the fledgling Paramount Network’s latest attempt at a big-tent series, “Yellowstone,” where the similarly spiteful Dutton clan struggles to keep a grip on their vast cattle ranch.
Don’t let the pretty horses and rosy sunsets fool you. “Yellowstone” is no more a Western, in the classic sense of the genre, than “Breaking Bad” or “Sons of Anarchy” were Westerns — which, one might argue, they were. Created, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote the screenplays for the films “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River”), “Yellowstone” is firmly set in a modern, contentious West that Sheridan specializes in portraying. It’s a filthier, morally malnourished post-frontier of land disputes, rapacious development, bureaucratic corruption, tribal animosities, endangered resources, working-class poverty, tax-free casinos, drug abuse and anti-federal sentiment. John Wayne wouldn’t know where to start.
Kevin Costner, however, is fairly effective and convincing as John Dutton, the gruff and dangerously influential owner of Yellowstone Ranch, a vast property set roughly between the renowned national park for which it is named and the hip tourist town of Bozeman, Mont.; the Duttons claim theirs is the largest contiguous ranch in the country.
But it won’t be for much longer, if an assortment of enemies prevails. After a significant number of Yellowstone’s herd wanders onto a nearby Indian reservation, the tribal governor, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), uses the opportunity to assert ownership of the cattle. It’s a beef about beef, unable to resist some stereotypical ham.
At some other end of Dutton’s empire (“Yellowstone” doesn’t offer much help for the geographically challenged viewer who doesn’t know Cheyenne from shinola), a real estate developer (Danny Huston) pushes forward with plans for more golf courses and luxury homes, threatening the ranch’s water source.
And so on. All Dutton and his loyal cowboys and offspring want is to be left entirely alone. One of “Yellowstone’s” weaknesses is its failure to teach viewers why (or why not) we should root for his independence; his Western entitlement alone won’t cut it, and the character Costner plays is unfortunately averse to explanatory monologues.
He’s difficult to relate to and quick to choose the most corrupt solution, making it hard to invest in worth, even as an anti-hero, especially with real-life memories still lingering of obstinate ranchers’ recent standoffs with federal authorities. “Yellowstone” has big skies and open space to spare, yet somehow the two-hour pilot (premiering Wednesday) lacks breathing room.
Instead, the first three episodes are extra-heavy on incident, with a multitude of sins committed by broadly brushed supporting characters. Of the Dutton siblings, Lee (Dave Annable) is clearly his father’s favored heir; daughter Beth (a grievously miscast Kelly Reilly) is a saucy, boozy bundle of contradictions; son Jamie (Wes Bentley) is an attorney whose legal prowess masks his insecurities about not being man enough for Dad; the youngest son, Kayce, is a half-estranged military vet who married an Indian, Monica (Kelsey Asbille), and now lives on the reservation with her and their son.
The subplots keep stampeding past before a viewer has a chance to corral them. Dutton’s devoted major-domo, Ric Wheeler (Cole Hauser), has the occasional romp with Beth, yet his cowboy heart pines for more; Kayce’s Indian in-laws give him a colder shoulder than his own father does; a wild colt is captured and brought into the ranch for breaking, mainly as a bucking metaphor alert; the dispute over the cattle reaches a deadly shootout, and before we’ve really gotten to know anyone, there’s a major character death and criminal coverup. (If nothing else, “Yellowstone” affirms that America is armed to the teeth.)
Further episodes may yet sort and settle accordingly. Sheridan mostly resists the temptation to turn the series into a soap opera, relying on his knowledge of what today’s West actually looks and feels like, which gives the series its authentic air. The Montana and Utah locations help, too, supplying plenty of high-def beauty. When you can’t follow what’s happening and you don’t take a liking to the characters, there’s plenty else to look at. The Duttons may have mountains of troubles, but they’ve also got some mighty fine mountains.
Yellowstone (two hours) premieres Wednesday, June 20, at 9 p.m. on Paramount Network.