“Nothing had prepared me, no books, no teachers, not even my parents. I heard a thousand stories, but none could describe this place, it must be witnessed, to be understood, and yet I’ve seen it and understand it even less than before I first cast eyes on this place. Some call it the American dessert, others The Great Plains, but those phrases were invented by professors at universities surrounded by the illusion of order and the fantasy of right and wrong. To know it you must walk it, Bleed into its dirt, drown in its rivers, then its name becomes clear, it is hell, and there are demons everywhere. But if this is hell and I’m in it, then I must be a Demon too and I’m already dead..”
We’re a visual people, and so most of you will recognize Taylor Sheridan from his role as a chief of police in Sons of Anarchy when the controlled puppet regime had finally left the scene. It’s not a remarkable role, and it’s not a complete surprise that Sheridan found his calling more recently behind the camera. As a writer his first script hit it out of the park. Sicario is an awesome film populated with compelling and interesting characters who thrived on a broken system. That theme appears to have stuck with him, because Yellowstone appears to take us back in time to the days of open frontiers and cattle barons who struggled to keep their land amid lawless communities and raiding parties of American Indians who were portrayed as savage beasts who kill women and children in the middle of the night to become to shadows of nightmares and the stories told to keep children in line. These themes were all there, but it takes place in a modern setting that does indeed make for an interesting new twist on an old idea. This is the dawning of the modern western where lands still stretch for miles and are still owned by a single family. It’s Bonanza in the 21st century, and Kevin Costner thought enough of the idea to star in this television drama series for The Paramount Network.
Yellowstone became a huge hit and I’m looking forward to the next season Blu-ray release and you can be sure I’ll be back here to tell you all about it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have something new to talk about before that. Taylor Sheridan is perfectly aware of the compelling world he has created and like the land of the West it’s prime for being exploited. We’ve already caught a few brief glimpses of the history of the Dutton clan in some flashbacks on the show. It isn’t much but it turns out it was really a tease. Now Sheridan takes us back to the 1880’s so that we can see just how the famous family got to where they are. The series is called 1883 and it turns out it’s only going to sport 10 episodes but those 10 episodes are going to take us across the new frontier’s of the American West. And it’s going to be just as compelling, if not more so than its parent show. This time it’s not Bonanza we’re following here. It’s Wagon Train.
James Dutton, played by country music icon Tim McGraw has arrived in Fort Worth, Texas to meet his family who are coming by train. Along the way he’s already had to survive an ambush and a city pickpocket. By handle, of course I mean shooting a lot of bad guys. His actions come under the notice of Pinkerton employees Shea Brennan (Elliott) and Thomas (Garrett). It’s a nice coincidence because these two cowboys have a difficult task ahead of them. They have been hired by a group of German Immigrants to take their wagons and families across the infamous Oregon Trail so that they may take advantage of free land being offered to settler. Now if you’ve ever played that old educational 8-bit game The Oregon Trail you know all the nasty stuff that tends to happen to folks who dare make the journey. I guess that’s why they hired a couple of old Civil War vets like Shea and Thomas to give them a better chance of getting there alive. So it’s a good thing they ran into James who is obviously quite handy with that gun. It happens that James is awaiting his wife and two children by train. They will then pack up their own wagon and head north looking for the perfect place to settle. So Shea and Thomas naturally try to sign him up to the crew but it’s not quite what James had in mind. But after a night of once again having to survive bad guys, in this case a guy trying to rape his daughter, he decides to sign up. He won’t take money. He wants to be independent but will stick with the wagon train until he finds his own place.
All of this is just set-up. The band hits the road and all of those things that got you in the game start happening and then some. The settlers are dropping like flies. As the series goes on they get killed by drowning, rattlesnakes, bandits, tornadoes, Indians, disease, tainted water and just downright carelessness. Because James isn’t an employee he pretty much does what he wants which calls Shea’s authority into question. Of course, James is always right and they end up doing what he wants to do. James is willing to help but he really just cares for his own family and getting them safely to a new home.
The story isn’t really told from the perspective of James, however. The episodes are narrated by his daughter Elsa (May). She starts the journey with a wide sense of wonder and amusement but learns many of the harsh lessons that we learned from that silly game. The show is not totally from her viewpoint. Stuff happens outside of her experience but she provides the insight and a bit of philosophy about it all. It’s kind of a coming of age story with a tragic twist and these narrations go from hopeful to more realistic as her sheltered life witnesses the worst that can happen to people in the wide frontier.
Elsa is played by Isabel May and she’s pretty solid in the part. At first I found her annoying until I realized that’s just what she was supposed to be at first. She was naive and ignorant of the world and therefore a bit … well… annoying. But May does a really good job of showing the evolution of the character and she does this not just in the words of the script but by her entire body language. Her worldview changes more than once and May convinces us that it’s true.
James’ wife is played by Tim McGraw’s real world wife and also country music star Faith Hill. You can imagine how convincing they are as a couple. My only complaint is that I think Faith’s character Margaret doesn’t get as much good stuff to play. She has some moments and the scenes where she’s realizing that Elsa is growing into a woman are wonderful moments. I just don’t think you get to see her strength outside of these two relationships like we do most other characters. I thought she was underused and with those glimpses of character strength were mostly left as unfulfilled promises.
I love Same Elliott. After Clint Eastwood he is my favorite western actor. There’s an authenticity in everything he does from the way he carries himself to his speech and expressions. He’s no disappointment here. He lost his wife and daughter to smallpox and he’s run out of reasons to live. That pain and weariness dominates every moment of this character’s arc. He also has wonderful chemistry with LaMonica Garrett who plays Thomas. Garrett is also a powerful performer and that relationship left me wanting so much more. They share a bond that goes back to the war and you truly buy that these guys are brothers.
The series is a visual treat. The locations and production design truly take you to this time and place. Here’s the real secret about Taylor Sheridan. He’s not a very good writer. If you look at the entire story of these 10 episodes it doesn’t really take us anywhere. It’s not clever, unique or compelling. But here’s how he gets away with it and delivers such great television. I’m about to out Sheridan so pay attention. He’s not a good writer and I think to a certain extent he knows that. So what does he do? He has an uncanny ability to match an actor with their character. It’s not just finding a good actor. There are plenty of those who have been in bad parts. He somehow knows just who has everything they need to not play but inhabit a part. That makes his characters so compelling that you’re really not paying so much attention to plot. You just can’t get enough of these characters and their interactions. The next key to his success is the fact that he knows this world. He knows the animals the places and their place in the food chain. He prepares his cast to the point where they start to feel natural about what they’re doing. Sheridan knows the world well. His production design is about as flawless as it can be. He also knows how to put it all together. The plot might be weak but just try and pull yourself away from it all. It’s actually a perfect metaphor for the series itself. Forget where they’re going and if they’ll even get there. It doesn’t matter because the journey is what it’s all about.
There are two notable cameos in the series. James has a flashback to his defeat at Antietam during the war and Tom Hanks appears as General George Meade. Billy Bob Thornton also shows up as the Fort Worth Marshall who helps the team deliver some frontier justice to a gang of thieves.
Each episode is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 2.00:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30-35 mbps. Remember what I said about Sheridan’s secret. It’s all up on the screen in this high definition image presentation. I’d love to see this stuff in 4K. The prairie locations are the perfect backdrop for this show. It’s gritty and it’s open and beautiful at the same time and this image presentation captures it in all of its splendor. It’s not always colorful. The prairie grass doesn’t have a lot of color and neither to most of the costumes. But there are splashes and the at times monochromatic feel adds to the atmosphere. There’s plenty of that to be found here. Black levels are pretty good with some nice shadow definition particularly at the edges of a camp fire. There’s a good bit of detail which is exactly what Sheridan wants to show off and wants you to experience.
The Dolby Digital TruHD 5.1 track delivers what you really need. Certainly there’s some expansion during action scenes but it’s the quiet and intimate moments where all of that atmosphere bleeds so well into the audio presentation. Not often a use of heavy subs but dialog comes through nicely.
Behind The Story: Each episode as a 3-4 minute behind-the-scenes feature that looks at that particular episode. There is plenty of cast and crew interview clips as well as too many clips from the episode you just watched.
There are nearly 2 hours of features that you can play all with. There’s a ton of good behind the scenes footage here but they repeat the same interview segments in pretty much every feature. The actor’s cowboy camp is really interesting.
There was originally talk of a second season but that was soon replaced with a different approach. I suspect we might revisit these characters in more flashbacks on the mother ship but it won’t be returning as a series. Instead another origin story series will take its place. 1932 will feature Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. That sounds exciting and I’m eager to see it but I will miss these characters. The story does kind of come to an emotional end but that never stopped Taylor Sheridan before. I’ll have to be content with Yellowstone’s future and 1932. But before you move on to see more from this franchise take a moment to take in 1883. “It’s beautiful”.