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1883 proves Taylor Sheridan has the ability to make TV feel bigger than the movies

  • "The opening shot of 1883—a close-up of the face of actress Isabel May, who plays Elisa Dutton—reveals an unfortunate, blunt end to what was once a beautiful journey," says Justin Kirkland of Paramount+'s Yellowstone prequel. "By the time the opening credits roll, she's got an arrow skewering her torso as she fires her gun back at American Indians on horseback. Roaring flames close in and it's then that you know: the story for Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan's new crop of characters is less about if they'll die, than when. In the first five minutes of the prequel series to his Montana-set epic, there are no winners or losers, just devastation. But damn if that sprawling landscape doesn't serve as a beautiful backdrop as the world burns. That vibe might sound familiar to those who are fans of Sheridan's other work, particularly those loyal to Yellowstone. I mean, the man has turned inter-family tragedy into must-watch television. But this new show, starring Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill, is much more unforgiving. Here, as the opening flash-forward suggests, ruin is inevitable. While some parts of 1883 (select acting, in particular) require a touch of finesse, the series proves that with the right vision—and one hell of a budget—Sheridan has the capability to make television feel even bigger than the movies."

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    • 1883’s unflinching depiction of its setting and characters gives the series a sense of gravitas, which it balances with tenderness: "This series displays the worst of humanity, but the series offers more than just a glimmer of hope," says Terry Terrones. "A blend of perseverance and optimism through backbreaking times gives 1883 the potential to be the prestige western fans of the genre have been waiting for."
    • 1883 is yet another Western from the point of view of white settlers: "An opportunity to disrupt present-day comprehension of a transformative period in U.S. history is wasted on yet another narrative from the point of view of white settlers," says Tambay Obenson. "The Western Frontier narrative is one that can’t be told without including the Native American experience, yet it’s a perspective from which these particular stories are rarely expressed, especially in the mainstream. Even the official synopsis for 1883 uses the phrase “the last bastion of untamed America” to describe this final destination. But what does 'untamed' mean for the civilization that populated those lands for centuries? It is this lack of consideration that almost singlehandedly renders 1883 disappointing. At best, it’s reductive, offering little of value to progressive discourse — nor does this family drama have anything new or profound to say about family; at worst, it’s intentional. In either scenario, the series is rendered toothless."
    • 1883 never feels like a perfunctory franchise expansion: "The scripts suggest Sheridan is even more at ease writing for the old-school Duttons, who face more organic challenges that make 1883 feel less soapy than the series that inspired it," says Joshua Alston. "But the writing isn’t without its snags. The voiceover dialogue swings between poignancy and puerility in prose as purple as a prairie clover. There’s also a blinkered approach to racial difference in the show, which always feels uncomfortable for a story set as a torrent of Jim Crow laws are taking effect. If the rest of the wagon train takes issue with Thomas being African-American, they’re doing an anachronistically admirable job of concealing it. (That’s to say nothing of the raft of thorny issues at play when telling a story about settler colonialism.) Still, 1883 has the characters, the scope, and the vision to become an exciting new chapter of the Yellowstone franchise, as well as a rare example of a spin-off that never feels beholden to its source material."
    • 1883's execution feels stale: "One problem is the heavy-handed narration, which sounds a little too much like those letters read during Ken Burns' The Civil War," says Brian Lowry, adding: "To its credit, the show doesn't pull many punches in painting its portrait of a near-lawless territory, with (Tim McGraw's) James receiving plenty of warnings when he arrives in Fort Worth in advance of his family. That's punctuated, however, by stilted dialogue that often seems plucked from old westerns, such as  James being told, 'You pull your pistol in this town, mister, you better know how to use it.'"
    • 1883 is less a Yellowstone prequel and more a straightforward period Western -- and not even of the revisionist variety: "There’s no clear reason why the central family has to be the Duttons," says Daniel Fienberg. "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 (Isabel May) 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."
    • 1883 makes Yellowstone seem like a summer-stock production of Oklahoma!: "This just might be the greatest Western on TV since Lonesome Dove some 30 years ago," says Richard Roeper. "With Yellowstone showrunners Taylor Sheridan and John Linson taking the reins, 1883 will be a particularly enriching experience for fans of the Kevin Costner series, but it works perfectly as a stand-alone story in a late 19th century world — the Great Plains at a time when the land offered great promise and generational freedom, but also a high probability of premature mortality."
    • Sam Elliott says 1883 looks like a big-screen movie on the small-screen: " I've never seen one that has looked anything like this on television, for sure," he says. "It looks like a motion picture on the big screen."

    TOPICS: 1883, Paramount+, Yellowstone, Faith Hill, Isabel May, Sam Elliott, Taylor Sheridan, Tim McGraw




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