Review: ‘Yellowstone’ Wrangles Daddy Issues on the Range

In the second episode of “Yellowstone,” Kayce Dutton (Luke Grimes), clearing a patch of Montana land, blows up a tree stump with explosives. In the resulting crater, he finds a half-exposed dinosaur fossil.

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James Poniewozik
, New York Times

In the second episode of “Yellowstone,” Kayce Dutton (Luke Grimes), clearing a patch of Montana land, blows up a tree stump with explosives. In the resulting crater, he finds a half-exposed dinosaur fossil.

This discovery feels like the sort of thing a writer — in this case Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”), who also directs — places as a metaphor: for the ancient history of the West, for secrets deeply interred, you name it.

But it also makes a pretty good metaphor for the series itself. “Yellowstone,” which begins Wednesday on Paramount Network, has a few interesting things buried within. But you need to dig through a lot of drab, hard-packed filler to get to them. The series seems to do that almost inadvertently, and only partially.

The surface layer of “Yellowstone” is part modern-day Western, part family business saga — a kind of cowboy “Dynasty” with some dark-cable ambitions. Standing atop it is the flinty personage of John Dutton (Kevin Costner, in ornery-cuss mode), the owner of Yellowstone Ranch, an expanse of grass, hills and testosterone the size of Rhode Island.

Dutton, no heart and all cattle, runs Yellowstone half like a business empire, half like a Big Sky mafia. He uses and abuses his political connections and has his ranchmen and henchmen branded with Yellowstone’s “Y.”

But Dutton is beset on multiple sides. Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), the combative chief of the neighboring Indian reservation, is pressing a conflict over cattle-grazing rights, while a developer is encroaching with a plan to build homes for well-heeled urbanites craving elbow room.

Dutton, not much of a compromiser, goes to the mattresses and calls on his grown kids. Lee (Dave Annable) is the only child who’s stayed home, striving for his father’s stingily given approval. Lee, Dutton tells him, sees his cattle the way a cowboy does (as lives to protect), not as a cattleman does (as investments to preserve). He does not mean it as a compliment.

The other Dutton siblings are various shades of black sheep. Jamie (Wes Bentley) is a lawyer with an eye on state politics. Beth (Kelly Reilly) is a hard-charging businesswoman, racking up boardroom and bedroom conquests, who feels transplanted from a more unapologetically sudsy family saga.

Dutton’s most tortured relationship is with his son Kayce, who has married a Native American woman, Monica (Kelsey Asbille), and moved onto the reservation, nearby but a world away. Kayce, caught between cultures, becomes something like the protagonist of “Yellowstone,” and its entree into the reservation.

A few recent TV series have treated modern reservation life, like Sundance’s “The Red Road” and A&E and Netflix’s “Longmire.” But it’s still fairly unexplored, and this is where “Yellowstone” feels most fresh, with its internal tribal politics and the culture clashes between Kayce and Monica’s family.

The show also flirts with big ideas about the West, and its outsized role in America’s identity, in the era of Cliven Bundy and New West new money. Who are the legitimate Westerners: the millionaire ranchers, the Native Americans watching their ancestral land being sold and resold, the expat city folks frequenting fancy ice cream shops?

But all this is overwhelmed by the daddy issues, land-grab intrigue and intrafamily drama, as the younger Duttons vie for favorite-child status and a battle of rich against richer escalates. (As it is, we don’t lack for backstabbing wealthy-family drama on TV nowadays — HBO’s “Succession,” the rebooted “Dynasty,” “Arrested Development,” the news.)

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with packaging deeper themes inside a genre story. That was to some extent the approach of Sheridan’s film “Wind River,” a murder mystery set on a reservation. “The Wire,” likewise, delivered a five-season treatise on urban policy in the form of a police serial.

But the A-story of “Yellowstone” is simply stale. Dutton is a hand-tooled role for Costner, but he’s not a charismatic villain in the throwback mode of “Dallas,” or a principled loner, or a complicated anti-hero. He’s just a corrupt grouch on horseback.

And the cast from top to bottom is burdened with stagy dialogue. By the time Jamie shouted at Beth, “Drive your polluted soul back to the city where it belongs!,” my will to continue was already motoring halfway to the horizon.

There’s no lack of talent on display. Reilly might have been a scene-stealer in a version of “Yellowstone” that fully committed to an all-out trashy-rich saga. Birmingham might have been a captivating protagonist in one that dove deeper into reservation politics.

“Yellowstone,” of course, has the right to be exactly the show it wants to be, but for now (I’ve seen three episodes, including the double-length pilot) it’s an unsteady mix of several, held together by the sepia of basic-cable grittiness.

It does, at least, deliver on a prerequisite of a modern Western: It looks grand. Sheridan shoots his locations (in Montana and Utah) to look both timeless and contemporary, loved but unromanticized.

Images like that unearthed dinosaur suggest a series that might have a capacity to surprise. For now, though, “Yellowstone” is a sprawling expanse whose potential is untapped.

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