'Yellowstone': TV Review

Find something better down yonder.

The first drama from Paramount Network — and Kevin Costner's first foray into series television — is a big, messy, soapy collection of testosterone-fueled cliches.

It's hard to figure out what the people involved in making Yellowstone, Paramount Network's first drama and Kevin Costner's first foray into series television, wanted when they started. Maybe creator, writer and director Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water), wanted to bring to the small screen some of the themes — masculinity, the American West, Native American exploitation — he explored in the latter movie (for which he was Oscar-nominated for best original screenplay). Maybe Costner, the lead in what the network is calling an "epic" shot entirely on location in Utah and Montana, wanted to do some fly fishing in Big Sky Country. Maybe executive producers John and Art Linson, who worked on FX's Sons of Anarchy (in which Sheridan was an actor), believed they had another testosterone grit-fest ripe for the shaping on cable.

There must have been good reasons.

What they appear to have ended up with, however, is a big, sprawling mess, floating in the suds of an "epic" amount of soap. Who knows, that may have been the ultimate goal — if you squint enough there's a lineage back to Dallas and Dynasty in Yellowstone somewhere, for better or worse. But what it looks like in the early going is that the rough-and-tumble Westernisms and violence that fueled Sheridan's big-screen successes somehow fall shorter and ring louder as cliches on the small screen.

Paramount Network has said that Yellowstone will look like a big-screen movie, and there is ample use of those land-engulfing wide shots from film that make desolately populated, cinematic lands like Texas (Hell or High Water) and, here, Utah and Montana so beautiful. But right from the start — and hammered home by the excessive use of helicopter shots — Yellowstone tries to be so expansive and soap-operatic that there's barely any realism in it.

The series opens with tractor-trailer carnage that culminates, pre-credits, with Costner speaking existentially to a damaged and dying horse before shooting it dead. There's pretty much no turning back from there. 

Costner plays John Dutton, the patriarch and baron of the Dutton family ranch in Montana. Though it's not explained with this level of detail in the series — somewhat shockingly, given the level of rampant exposition — Paramount Network says Costner's character "controls the largest contiguous ranch in the United States, under constant conflict with those it borders — land developers, an Indian reservation, and America's first National Park. Dutton, a sixth-generation rancher and devoted father, is immersed in a corrupt world where politicians are bought and sold by the world's largest oil and lumber corporations and land grabs make developers billions."

Well, if that doesn't shout "sprawling" and "epic" then nothing does. That said, it's unclear why the show is called Yellowstone, since the national park is mostly in Wyoming and Dutton's ranch isn't called Yellowstone Ranch, even though it has a "Y" as its logo (which, as a sub-story, is branded on various humans that Dutton wants to "own"). But I digress.

Basically, Costner and his almost entirely unlikable family are squaring off with Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham of Hell or High Water), the new chief of the reservation and casino owner, who will stop at nothing to get payback for atrocities against the Native Americans and, it appears, to make enough money to buy Dutton's enormous ranch.

To illustrate that Rainwater is, A) Indian (and yes, that's the terminology used in the series), B) Powerful and C) A casino owner, there's a very long scene, filled with exposition masquerading as a philosophical soliloquy, where he dons an Indian headdress, looks down at all the white folks hoping to get rich quick and, while talking with a senator (played by Jill Hennessy), says this: "Gamblers' money is like a river flowing one way. (Pause.) Our way."

Now, if you already knew that he didn't need to say "Our way," then this is not the show for you. Yellowstone loves to have its characters talk and talk and talk, mostly in cliches, about everything. 

"This is not California, gentlemen. This is Montana. We can do whatever we want," says a sleazy and pretentious developer played by Danny Huston.

"In case you don't know, there's no such thing as heaven," says one character before killing another.

Kelly Reilly, who plays daughter Beth Dutton, gets to spit out all of her lines dramatically and vamp around as the badass man-eater who has a thing for her father's henchman, named — wait for it — Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser). "It's only the things that I love that die, Rip, not me." 

Beth says that while chasing after wolves in her dress. Yes, that happens.

But in Yellowstone, everything happens — big, soapy things that are usually punctuated by long soliloquies. This series is unabashedly testosterone-fueled. There are guns and horses and more guns and a helicopter and dynamite and sex and explosions and lots of metaphorical dick-measuring and discussions about what it means to be man or be a cowboy. There are jokes about being gay. There's a possibly gay brother, Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley), who is the family lawyer and wears suits and has immaculate hair but only admits to sister Beth, when she viciously calls him out on his sexuality (saying that daddy won't like it if he finds out), that he's "celibate." Maybe this will be developed more later. 

If we are supposed to like the Dutton family, Yellowstone is going about it all wrong. Costner's character is basically a domineering grump. Eldest son Lee (Dave Annable) will do anything for his dad's approval and usually ends up getting yelled at. Jamie just pouts about not getting approval. Beth is really kind of in a different show but doesn't know it. The only likable Dutton is Kayce (a very good Luke Grimes, whose naturalism stands out here). Kayce lives "on the res" and is married to an Indian woman (of course — got to have that dramatic tension) named Monica (Kelsey Asbille), who acts, literally and figuratively, like she lives in Santa Monica.

So, yeah, there are some issues with Yellowstone. One issue is clearly not money: Paramount Network has every actor imaginable in this series — familiar faces like Huston and Hennessy and Wendy Moniz, all getting a smattering of lines that hint their characters might be developed later. Even Gretchen Mol is credited as Costner's dead wife, but who knows if she'll make an appearance other than in family pictures. There are a lot of good actors here but they are not allowed to be subtle. The network sent three episodes (the first was 90 minutes) but I had a pretty clear idea of whatYellowstone was — and that it wasn't for me — after two. At least I got to hear one of the characters say, in that second episode, "All men are bad. But they try real hard..." and I stopped writing the rest down. Sometimes you just know.

Cast: Kevin Costner, Wes Bentley Cole Hauser, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly, Gil Birmingham, Kelsey Asbille, Dave Annable
Created, written and directed by: Taylor Sheridan
Premieres: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Paramount Network)