The “Yellowstone” effect: Welcome to the new era of TV westerns

In the season four finale of “Yellowstone,” Kevin Costner’s John Dutton III announces his candidacy for governor of Montana by proposing a simple platform. “I’m the opposite of progress,” he tells the country’s up-and-coming voters. “I’m the wall it hits and I won’t be the one to break.”

The sixth-generation rancher delivers on that promise in his victory speech, because his victory was a foregone conclusion from the moment he threw his broad-brimmed hat into the political ring. After all, since Dutton is the patriarch of the largest contiguous cattle ranch in the United States, he could also be the great father of the entire region.

He promises his voters to protect Montana’s clean air, water and pristine forests by eliminating funding for airports and real estate developments and punishing non-residents with additional taxes.

“The message is: we are not your playground. We are not your haven from the pollution, traffic and mismanagement of your home states. This is our home. If you make Montana your home, maybe you’ll start treating it as a house and not a vacation rental.”

When his son Jamie (Wes Bentley) hears this, he complains that John just set the state back 30 years. Jamie’s sister Beth (Kelly Reilly), a daddy’s girl to the core, crows that he thinks too small. The plan, she says, is to set it back a century.

“Yellowstone” is often described as the Red States’ answer to “Succession,” though its co-creator, showrunner, and occasional guest-star Taylor Sheridan scoffs at that. If the show has a particular appeal to conservatives, and it does, that is consistent with Montana’s political leanings, along with the other vast expanses of western United States that don’t touch the Pacific.

Then again, so what? Just as Logan Roy’s fan base includes many people he wouldn’t allow to shine his shoes, John Dutton’s bravado and the messiness of the rest of his family really is a big tent affair.

yellowstoneYellowstone (Paramount Network)

“Yellowstone” is the “Dallas” of our day, just as real estate ownership and development can be seen as the equivalent of oil wealth in 2022. The Nighttime Soap was a hit for CBS in the late 1970s, as “Yellowstone” is for Paramount Network today; More than 13.4 million viewers tuned in to the season five premiere on Paramount Network, Pop, CMT and TV Land.

But it’s also doing something that seemed unlikely just a few years ago: revitalizing the western’s popularity on the small screen.

The western never completely disappears from television, especially when you broaden your interpretation of which shows qualify to carry that shield.

All of these shows contrast the violence and ruthlessness that define the genre with intriguing cinematography that reflects the untamed allure of the West.

Considering the genre’s modern standard-bearers naturally requires a deep homage to “Deadwood,” along with reminders of underappreciated achievements like 2017’s series “Godless” or 2019’s cult hit, East meets West, “Warrior.”

Credit also has to be given to Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, a show Sheridan worked on, for paving the way for Yellowstone, although the Dutton saga’s tone falls somewhere between Longmire and Longmire. Justified” – which is also getting a revival. In 2023, Timothy Olyphant will take on the role of Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified: City Primeval.

Quite a list, proving that any claims that this western was dead at any point in the last two decades are incorrect. But it lay fallow for a while. “Westworld” certainly hasn’t put it back in the saddle.

In fairness, “Yellowstone’s” role in promoting frontier history fashion is also a matter of good timing, politically and awkwardly speaking. “Yellowstone” debuted in 2018 in the midst of a presidential administration that has forced us to question and argue about the meaning of American identity. Such debates are at the heart of the Western tableau, stories that ultimately boil down to struggles for survival between will and character, and determine who gets to shape a culture’s history.

yellowstoneGil Birmingham in “Yellowstone” (Paramount Network)

The drama only really achieved hit status during the pandemic, when cooped-up city dwellers gaped at the footage of pristine vistas and open skies, and Googled cost-of-living comparisons between Montana and where they live. Statistics, listed in US News and World Report, show that the state’s population grew 1.1% in 2020, followed by 1.6% growth in 2021. This has also impacted housing prices Soared, with the median home price now nearly double what it was in 2020 at $500,000.

Real estate agents speak of the “Yellowstone Effect”.

When television sees its version of this, it’s heavily influenced by Sheridan’s other work.

The first Yellowstone spinoff, a prequel called 1883, broke viewership records when it premiered last year; Another chapter in the Dutton family saga, 1923, arrives December 18th on Paramount+. What they lack in the poetic bite that has characterized shows like cult shows like Deadwood, they make up for with impressive household names like Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren.

“1883” stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw as John Dutton’s great-great-grandparents, alongside Sam Elliott as the hired gun who protects them and other white settlers traveling the Oregon Trail from the east. Even Tom Hanks makes a cameo appearance.

This year also yielded ‘Billy the Kid’ from ‘Vikings’ creator Michael Hirst, who wasn’t as sure about his storytelling reins as these other titles.

Not to be left behind, Prime Video gave us Josh Brolin in Outer Range, and recently, a six-part revenge saga, The English, from filmmaker Hugo Blick debuted.

The EnglishChaske Spencer and Emily Blunt in The English (Diego Lopez Calvin/Drama Republic/BBC/Amazon Studios)

It’s a meandering tale, enhanced somewhat by Emily Blunt’s riveting performance as an English noblewoman, Lady Cornelia Locke, who joins forces with Chaske Spencer’s stoic Eli Whipp, a Pawnee Army officer trying to leave his military life behind to to farm in Nebraska. As flawed as its narrative execution may be, the cinematography is beyond sublime, capturing the natural radiance of the meadows and the endless blue above.

Last but not least, this contributes to the new attractiveness of the western. All of these shows juxtapose the violence and ruthlessness that define the genre with captivating cinematography that reflects the untamed allure of mountains and prairies. After so many years of gritty, sweaty anti-heroes grimacing through dark rooms or propping themselves in the dirt, the Sheridan-influenced West is an untouched treasure worth fighting for.

That’s another point of evolution: each of these series challenges the rights claimed by self-appointed administrators like John Dutton, who is crusading against reckless profiteers since the land came into their possession because their white predecessors gave it to the people who lived there indigenous peoples took away for centuries before Europeans arrived in North America.

Westerns roam the landscape of history, and that topography is constantly changing and constantly contested.

As Sheridan defends against claims that the show is right-wing steak that is rarely served, he points to the recurring themes of Dutton’s rejection of environmental degradation, along with ongoing storylines about the displacement of tribal peoples after white settlers confiscated their lands , supported by the government .

On “Yellowstone,” the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock, whose reservation adjoins Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, now feud with a neighbor who holds the most powerful position in the state and promises to protect the state’s natural resources by selling off tourist revenue.

The EnglishChaske Spencer in The English (Diego Lopez Calvin/Drama Republic/BBC/Amazon Studios)

“It’s a good thing for the country,” said tribal leader Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) of Dutton’s aggressive executive orders, “but I don’t see how good it’s for us.” There is a long story there, shown in “1883” when his ancestors violated Native American territorial boundaries, and elsewhere in “The English” where Eli’s insistence on demanding what the government gave him for his military service is constantly reminded that he is not white and therefore his life is worth less than that of a white man.

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Nostalgia is the fuel of the western, which explains why it keeps popping up at turning points in our culture. Gunsmoke, which held the record for the prime-time screenplay series that produced the most episodes in TV history until The Simpsons surpassed its 635 episodes, was written after World War II.

The fact that it endured the social turmoil caused by the war in Vietnam and the civil rights era is a telling indicator of America’s devotion to its self-established mythology. Westerns roam the landscape of history, and that topography is constantly changing and constantly contested. The past few years have reminded us of this, especially as politicians busily try to legislate versions of history outside of the classroom that don’t suit their beliefs.

In cinemas in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, cowboys became the moral equivalent of gray hats, until we finally met a brighter cowboy in the form of, yes, Kevin Costner in Silverado and later Dances With Wolves.”

The version he presents of John Dutton in Yellowstone is closer to the Clint Eastwood archetype with hints of JR Ewing’s determination, with a little more grit in his voice and whiskey in his demeanor. Dutton’s goal is not expansion, but to maintain his questionably acquired terroir and thus his dominance over everything he overlooks. He is the image that looks back on those who stare in the mirror, looking for either a threat or a sign of what the nation looks like at that moment.

Depending on who you are, you might cheer at the sight of him or watch to celebrate his fall. Either way, it has us turning our gaze west again no matter how long this genre gold rush lasts.

“Yellowstone” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on the Paramount Network. Stream past seasons on Peacock. All episodes of 1883 will stream on Paramount+. All episodes of The English will stream on Prime Video.

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