The Dutton family holds control over the largest ranch in the country. Its patriarch, John Dutton (Kevin Costner), finds enemies from every corner: the land developers in the form of Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston), the reservation and its new leader (Gil Birmingham), and National Park issues accompanied by the governor (Wendy Moniz). On his side are his daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) and son Jamie (Wes Bentley). Caught in the middle is his other son, Kayce (Luke Grimes), who lives on the reservation with his Native American family. This all leads down a path of war, not through just violence, but action and intimidation.
Yellowstone, created by Taylor Sheridan and John Linson, is an American drama on Paramount Network that attempts to be the massive new prestige drama, but buckles under the weight in its opening hours. Shot absolutely beautifully by Sheridan—who is establishing himself as a master of modern westerns—this pilot is a looker. The Montana country, the horses and cattle, the homes, even the pristine office buildings and courthouses are exemplary in their photography.
The two-hour premiere does run into the issue of a lot of set-up and place-setting that does not leave much room to care or bond with any of the sizable cast. Some do stand out, such as Cole Hauser as Rip Wheeler, a fixer of sorts who does the behind-the-scenes dirty work for the Dutton family. The family all serve their own purpose to the story. Costner is stoic and stern and shows why he is always reliable in delivering a solid performance. Bentley is the eloquent inside man with the politicians but searching for acceptance from his father. Reilly is tough and formidable, always ready for a fight. Grimes is the black sheep family man, torn between two worlds. While a lot of them can come off as stereotypical or done before, this does come off as groundwork being laid out and readied for something bigger.
The last act, at least, sets up that much-needed substantial progress that will have a great mass of consequences. But it’s the pieces that came before in this, and their lackadaisical nature, that makes it somewhat of a slog to get to. It’s a lot of backroom dealing and lofty dialogue, like migration and how it’s ingrained in all of us.
Yellowstone tries to become the most prestige of prestige television, and in doing so manages to stumble in its footing. The cast is incredibly strong and can lead to some great potential, but as a pilot, these two hours leaves something to be desired. It touches on elements that have been in Sheridan’s other screenplays, including Wind River, and other shows with this kind of setting, like Banshee. There’s hope that the upcoming hours can build on this foundation, to make something special, and it can certainly be done. This cast and a great story are still well within reach. But for now, the pilot is a reminder that beauty and looks aren’t everything.