Why is Yellowstone the most-watched least-talked about series on TV? Usually you hear about a show that the critics are raving about and you make a mental note of it, or add it to your watch list. Chances are, though, that no critic in your vicinity was imploring you to watch Paramount’s Kevin Costner drama.
The first season of Yellowstone averaged a 53 score (out of 100) from Metacritic. It didn’t get a second-season average because Metacritic’s reviewers stopped watching. It wasn’t nominated for awards. Its Wikipedia page is pathetic. Vulture stopped recapping episodes after Season 1 (yes, the same Vulture that recapped three frick’n seasons of Eastbound & Down).
In fact, the only reason the entertainment world is paying attention to Yellowstone’s third season premiere this weekend is the somewhat inconvenient fact that a show the critics gave up on not only wasn’t cancelled, it finished its second season as one of the most-watched shows on TV. It grew its audience from Season 1 to nearly 6 million viewers an episode. It doubled its rating in the 18-49 demographic, larger than lots of network shows (including This Is Us wannabe Council of Dads).
There’s only one way the audience for Yellowstone could have grown — word of mouth. In that respect, the show is basically a replay of The Walking Dead, another sleeper cable hit that critics were mild about and viewers were wild about.
I’m not going to judge whether the critics made the right call back in 2018 to shun Yellowstone. I was out of the reviewing game when Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) sold this idea to Paramount. When I cut the cord in 2012, the Paramount Network was still the brotastic Spike TV. I will say, though, that it’s weird I was only made aware of Yellowstone a few months ago, because the show takes place in the place I will always call my home — south-central Montana. As a native of Yellowstone County, I should’ve had a rooting interest in this show from the start. If it’s not too late for me, then it’s not too late for you.
So why is Yellowstone such an under the radar hit? Well, Kevin Costner is great as ever, but also there’s nothing else like it on TV — a drama about an outlaw family that rules a corner of America like its own duchy that manages to be both jaw-droppingly violent and unbearably tender in every episode. It’s beautifully, filmically shot (mostly in Utah for tax reasons). It’s got a great big sprawling cast with all kinds of appealing characters, from the politically connected Indians next door to the Duttons’ salty ranch hands. Taylor Sheridan, who has written or co-written every episode, has proven he can maintain a season-long story arc and finish strong. It’s just good-ass TV.
Costner plays Jack Dutton, widower and patriarch of Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. Imagine the Sons of Anarchy MC sitting on a billion dollars of prime Western land. Here is a brute-force way of life that should’ve faded away decades ago, except that it’s Montana, where the Duttons regulate the politicians, instead of the other way around. They effectively run their own militia to protect the family’s assets and culture. (If this sounds farfetched, the Anaconda mining company for decades ran the state’s political system and owned all but one of its daily newspapers. This history is why Montanans have always insisted on both small government and good government and is one of our purplest states.)
Costner is aided by an outstanding supporting cast, especially the actors who play his three adult children: Luke Grimes as Kayce, a veteran married to a woman from the nearby Indian reservation; Kelly Reilly as Beth, a ferociously hot mess who is good with money and brings the brains to the family brain trust; and Wes Bentley as Jamie, a lawyer and the one who is always the answer to the question, “Which person here doesn’t belong on a ranch?” In addition, Jack’s most trusted ranch hand Rip (Cole Hauser) has become like a son and is best positioned to take over the operation someday — that is, if he doesn’t get killed first.
In Season 2’s explosive finale, John’s only grandchild Tate was rescued after a manhunt that left six people dead, including the rival Beck brothers and Dan the real estate man, who was ready to put an Indian casino and hotel right next to the Dutton Ranch. Season 3 begins, from what I can tell, the day after. Beth is still sporting two black eyes and facial bruises from her beating from the Becks — one that (again with the tender moments) strengthened her ties to Rip.
The clerk at the liquor store also has facial bruises. She says to Beth, “How did you make him stop?” Beth considers the question and the haunted look on the clerk’s face, then replies, “My boyfriend put his head through a wall. Then I smashed his skull with an eight-pound ashtray. New boyfriend, big ass ashtray. Just a thought.” Then she walks out.
Moments later, she spots a stranger fishing in the creek that divides her family’s land. Legally he can be there, but Beth isn’t having any of it. “You’re trespassing!” she yells over the roar of the water. And … it’s Josh Holloway, Sawyer from Lost! From what I can tell so far, he’s playing the role of Sawyer from Lost. Of course he takes one look at Beth and asks her out. Storming back to her car she tells him, “No! I dine out on my joyful life. Stay off my f——in’ land!”
With writing worthy of the best Peak TV shows, Yellowstone has wagon loads of dramatic potential. The Duttons are defenders of a tradition that strikes most Americans as almost mythical — the cowboy way, the romance of the rancher, the backdoor environmentalist who cherishes wild beauty and unmolested resources and will not tolerate any hedge-fund yuppie luxury-house-building Californicators in their sights, and will remove them by extra-judicial means if necessary.
Season 3 of Yellowstone premieres on Paramount Network Sunday June 21st at 9:00 PM ET
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.