1883, the new old West drama from Taylor Sheridan, who created the huge cable hit Yellowstone, begins with this question: How did John Dutton — Kevin Costner’s character on Yellowstone — get to be such a ruthless bastard? The short answer is that he learned it from his father … who learned it from his father.
Yellowstone, the Sons of Anarchy-Bonanza mashup that yours truly only discovered just before Season 3, keeps piling on viewers: 14.7 million watched the Season 4 premiere on cable’s Paramount Network. And its creator is arguably the hottest pen in the West, or at least at Paramount+, whose executives must kick themselves every time someone asks when the show will start streaming. (“It’s streaming right now — on our rival!” Yep, in 2019 Paramount’s owner sold the streaming rights for Yellowstone to NBCUniversal’s Peacock.)
But at least they have Sheridan’s services for Mayor of Kingstown, which recently debuted on Paramount+ and a second Yellowstone spinoff that’s currently in the works. And they have 1883, a fine addition to the Dutton mythology, with all ten episodes directed by Sheridan himself. Make some popcorn and plan to watch the two-episode origin story in one sitting. It might be the most satisfying addition to the Western genre since Godless.
It starts with a man named Shea Brennan, who finds himself widowed and in need of a fresh start. Shea — played by bewhiskered voice-of-God-if-God-were-a-Texan Sam Elliott — and his podner Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), a Pinkerton agent, hire themselves out as coyotes, leading a band of Eastern European immigrants to Montana homesteads. The immigrants, who speak no English and own no weapons, are clearly unprepared for what awaits them in the wild. Shea and Tom will need help.
Help arrives in the form of E.J. Dutton, a mysterious cuss they spot out on the trail and then again in Fort Worth, which in 1883 appears to combine the worst qualities of Deadwood and Gomorrah. As they watch Dutton brandishing a gun with great skill and little discretion, Brennan predicts, “He’ll pick a fight he can’t win before long.” Approaching the gunslinger, they learn he is waiting for his family to arrive by train in Fort Worth, to set off for a stake in a territory to be determined. That is, if they make it out of town alive.
Everything you like about Yellowstone is present here: senseless violence, TV-MA dialogue, brutal ethical choices, cinematic visuals and a certain tender-heartedness beneath the savagery. Dutton is played by country superstar Tim McGraw in his biggest acting role to date, and it won’t take long for Yellowstone fans to see bits of John Dutton’s personality in his ancestor.
He’s beautifully counterbalanced by his wife Margaret, played by country superstar Faith Hill. The fact that these Duttons are married in real life adds to their chemistry and show’s overall appeal. (Here's guessing they only needed one take for that scene of them making out in a clawfoot tub.) Their oldest daughter Elsa, played by newcomer Isabel Ray, adds a level of danger that only a teenage girl can.
But there’s a reason why the 1883 story begins with Elliott. As the most seasoned actor of the bunch, it’s his job to establish the emotional bona fides that are as crucial to a Taylor Sheridan show as unfettered aggression and endless ambition. We see his brokenness in the show’s powerful opening minutes; later on, after lots of drama, his avuncular side emerges. By the season finale I fully expect him to be pitching 1883-branded whiskey during the commercial breaks.
1883 rolls out its first two episodes Dec. 19 on Paramount+. The first two episodes will also air on the Paramount Network following Yellowstone Dec. 19th and Dec. 26th, but the show will stream exclusively after that.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.