NEW YORK (CNS) — Violence, banality and melodramatic excess undermine the commendably ambitious contemporary Western drama “Yellowstone,” which premieres on the Paramount Network Wednesday, June 20, 9-11 p.m. EDT.
After its two-hour debut, hourlong installments of the 10-episode series will air on Wednesdays 10-11 p.m. EDT, concluding Aug. 15.
Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (2017’s “Hell or High Water”) created, wrote and directed “Yellowstone,” which, as the title implies, is set in Montana in the shadow of America’s first national park.
The pilot opens on a bleeding John Dutton (Kevin Costner). Injured in a bad traffic accident involving an overturned truck, Dutton extends his right hand to calm his horse, which also has been wounded in the mishap. The animal will suffer too much, Dutton realizes, and he violently ends the horse’s misery.
Dutton, the patriarch of the largest contiguous ranch in the United States, feels beset on all sides. He instructs his adult son, attorney Jamie (Wes Bentley), to fend off an eminent domain claim. And plans by commercial developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) to build the residential subdivision Paradise Valley particularly irk the rancher.
The internecine rivalry between the tightly wound Jamie and his dissolute sister, Beth (Kelly Reilly), and Dutton’s own fractious relationship with his rebellious, estranged son, Kayce (Luke Grimes), also are sources of consternation for the clan’s leader.
But the chief of an unnamed American Indian tribe living on the fictitious Broken Rock reservation, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), proves to be Dutton’s most formidable adversary. As Kayce’s Native American father-in-law, Felix Long (Rudy Ramos), tells Dutton about Rainwater: “He grew up in Denver, went to some big university. Now he thinks like you.”
Looking down into the casino the tribe owns, Rainwater tells well-meaning U.S. Sen. Huntington (Jill Hennessy, “Law and Order”) “the gamblers’ money is like a river flowing one way.”
“Your people,” the chief says, “have never driven a road, walked a trail or skied a mountain in Montana that didn’t belong to my people first. But we’ll buy it back with their money.”
When Dutton’s cattle wander onto reservation land, it precipitates a stalemate between the mighty paterfamilias and the resolute tribal leader. This conflict is at the core of the series’ drama, which plays out as a more sophisticated version of Cowboys and Indians.
Having turned his back on his dad, Kayce, who lives on the reservation with his Native American wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille), and young son, Tate (Brecken Merrill), is torn between competing loyalties.
When the stand-off escalates to direct confrontation, Kayce initially defends his adopted family, but ultimately chooses his natural one. The former Navy SEAL’s decision predictably ends in a tragedy, which, from the tribal perspective, could signal the end for the Duttons.
“Yellowstone” features a high level of violence, including an unnecessarily gruesome moment when a new rancher is branded on the chest with a hot poker. The series also includes a constant stream of strong, often gratuitous, profanity.
Additionally, the show depicts substance abuse, graphic sexual activity, unwarranted nudity and a sexual assault. Most distressingly, in what is arguably the series’ most difficult scene to watch, domestic violence erupts as Jamie and Beth have a fistfight.
“Yellowstone” exceeds the bourns of good taste and decency, and cannot be recommended even for well-grounded grown-ups.
Reilly’s overly broad characterization of Beth is emblematic of what’s wrong with the series. She comes across as a petulant, mean-spirited, sexually indiscriminate, reckless mess. Even a back story explaining her role in her mom, Evelyn’s (Gretchen Mol), demise won’t engender viewers’ sympathy for the family’s only daughter.
She’s one of the more unappealing TV characters viewers will ever encounter. And when her dad proposes Beth run for political office, viewers will properly ask: Has he been paying attention?
“Yellowstone’s” distasteful qualities seriously detract from what the show does well, namely, portraying Native Americans honestly and sympathetically. The program addresses an old and fundamental American question: Can our society learn to deal fairly with Native Americans burdened with a legacy of betrayal?
But this salient issue gets lost in “Yellowstone’s” ultimately ludicrous shuffle.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.