Published on October 21st, 2022 | by Douglas Rasmussen0
Though most fans would probably be loathe to admit it, Taylor Sheridan’s TV series, Yellowstone, is a ‘Rope Opera.’ How does its prequel, 1883, fare?
I’ll just get this out of the way first; I really don’t care much for the original Yellowstone television series. I only came in at the second season of the original series, and found both Taylor Sheridan’s writing and the acting generally pretty terrible. Indeed, Kevin Costner is the sole actor who is grounding the series in anything coming close to a substantive performance. Kelly Reilly (Beth Dutton) and Wes Bentley (Jamie Dutton) are particular standouts in terms of unimpressive acting, and the series—which details the trials of tribulations of owning a ranch in Montana—is essentially Dallas with a lot more swearing and sleaze.
Needless to say I wasn’t exactly on pins and needles awaiting the spinoff series Yellowstone 1883, which is a prequel that narrates the adventures of John Dutton’s (Kevin Costner) great grandfather James Dutton (Tim McGraw) as they embark on the Oregon Trail to settle there (only to end up staking a claim Montana instead). For the first episode, which sets up the premise, where Shea Brennan (Sam Elliot) recruits James and others to help guide some immigrants to Oregan, I pretty much zoned out and didn’t pay much attention. In fact it wasn’t until late into the second episode when Billy Bob Thornton appears at real-life Marshal Jim Cartright (a stone cold killer who also ran a protection racket), that my interest in the series picked up.
What ends up separating this series from its progenitor, however, is that the quality is much better than in the original series. In the original Costner is literally the sole good actor amongst an unremarkable supporting cast. Reilly and Bentley ham it up as soap opera actors, and Cole Hauser as Rip has one dimension to his character; he grunts and is a bad-ass. The rest I can’t remember without Googling it, which is more effort than I’m willing to put into it. But in 1883 we are treated to Sam Elliot who does play into his cowboy archetype somewhat, but they do give him some more complexity. Country singer Tim McGraw is surprisingly good as James, and LaMonica Garrett (Thomas) as a former slave, now friend to Brennan, and Martin Sensmeier as “Handsome Sam” turn in solid performances.
The fault with 1883 comes with Taylor Sheridan’s writing, which, as always, has notable deficiencies. For instance, Sheridan still has difficulty writing about women. James Dutton’s daughter Elsa (Isabel May) comes up short in this series, as her story arc is the most soap opera of the series. Yet May turns in a really good performance in the final moments of the final episode, so I’m more inclined to believe that it is a writing deficiency rather than acting.
The pacing also leaves something to be desired, as scenes of brutal violence and harsh conditions occasionally punctuate an otherwise slow paced narrative. But there are some other good qualities to the writing, such as the depiction of Indigenous people, who receive far more respect in 1883 typically afforded in the traditionally conservative Western genre. The scenes of violence and tragedy and the hardships of traveling by wagon in the old west are skillfully done in depicting just the absolute savagery of the times.
So while I cannot say that I was bowled over in awe by 1883, I will say that it is an improvement over the original. There are issues in 1883 that still prevent the limited series (the next installment is reportedly called Yellowstone 1923, which will feature Harrison Ford) from being an unqualified success. But considering the dumpster fire that is the original Yellowstone, that comes about as high praise as I can give it. Worth a watch if you like Westerns or just have some time and have watched all the other new series out there.