Saturday, June 22, 2019

Television Reviews: Yellowstone Season One

Yellowstone Season 1
created and written by Taylor Sheridan
I'm not sure if I thought this Paramount TV drama was trashy fun or funny trash. Yellowstone was created by the man who wrote and directed Wind River, reviewed here. Sheridan also wrote Sicario, reviewed here, acted in Sons of Anarchy, and wrote the Oscar nominated Hell or High Water. So there is some skill behind this creation, but it's not always consistently super apparent in the first season. There are a lot of ups and downs with the narrative. I think as is common with a lot of shows these days the creator/writer wants you to identify with everyone and no one.

There is some confusion in what the show is trying to say at times, something I think comes directly from the top. The creator has said that he doesn't really believe in the concept of white privilege and finds it very offsetting to those whites, who like him, grew up without what they saw as any privilege. 

On the other hand Sheridan's work seems to be at least partially influenced by the work of his brother, John Gibler, a journalist who has passionately detailed drug war atrocities in Mexico, environmental racism in California and Texas and other human rights issues. Sheridan has also written of how certain restaurants or bars out west refused to serve Native Americans, white police would wait outside reservations specifically to profile Native Americans and how gas stations would refuse to serve him once they discovered he was friendly with or working with Native Americans. So whether he likes all the language used by the modern "woke" audiences or not, Sheridan is certainly aware of racial disparities. The question is what to do about it. 

What to do about it is only one of the various questions addressed in Yellowstone's first season, and perhaps not even the most important one. The best description of Yellowstone might be "Dallas" meets "The Godfather" with a VERY healthy slice of "Sons of Anarchy", "West Side Story" and "The Wild Bunch". 

The show's lead actor is Kevin Costner, who once again provides his trademark awshucks patriarchal presence. The difference is that Costner's character John Dutton is not really a good guy. By that I mean that he's not really all that interested in the wellbeing of other people. He's interested in maintaining his personal power as head of the Montana Livestock Commission and his family's power as owners of the largest contiguous ranch in Montana, the Yellowstone ranch, which is larger than all of Rhode Island. 

The widowed Dutton is nowhere near as mean or hateful as Twyin Lannister, but he does share that character's concern about family power. John Dutton intends to pass on his wealth and power to his children, whether they want it or not. John Dutton doesn't think that his children, with one or two exceptions, deserve independent lives. Of course as we see in flashback John Dutton might well have been the less terrifying parent to his children during their formative years. John Dutton has a fierce dedication to the concept of private property, something he brusquely explains to a group of Chinese tourists he discovers trespassing on his property and endangering themselves by getting too close to a bear.

In Season One, Dutton's power is under attack from multiple sources inside and outside of his family. Dutton has four adult children and one semi-adopted man who now serves as John's foreman (and enforcer). These include:
  • Lee (Dave Annable) John's oldest son and heir apparent. He's an alpha male just like dear old Dad.
  • Beth (Kelly Reilly) John's only daughter and evident favorite. She's a financial executive. Often drunk, wildly promiscuous, an exhibitionist and profanely contemptuous of any male weakness, Beth is a walking hurricane of bad attitude, cigarette smoke, feminist entitlement and general shrewishness, but is always loyal to her Daddy. Whatever else she is she's not dumb.
  • Jaime (Wes Bentley) The family lawyer. He's a bit soft spoken and has a hate-hate relationship with Beth who bullies him every chance she gets. Jaime would very much like to be out from under his father's thumb. Jaime feels unappreciated by Dad. Nonetheless he's usually just a phone call away when John Dutton needs some swift legal chicanery performed.
  • Kayce (Luke Grimes) A former Navy SEAL, Kayce has married a Native American school teacher, Monica (Kelsey Asbille) and lives on the local reservation with her where he works as a horse trainer. The couple doesn't have much money but that doesn't bother Kayce. Kayce thinks he has rejected his father and all that he represents. Kayce is the father of John's only grandson but will often refuse to let John see his grandson. Kayce is not shy about telling his father all the reasons he doesn't like him. He'll tell you too if you want.
  • Rip (Cole Hauser) Also soft spoken and almost always dressed in black, the physically imposing and intimidating Rip was taken in as a teen by John Dutton. Rip serves as ranch foreman. He hires and fires the cowhands and handles those deeds that John doesn't want anyone to know about. It's not healthy to cross Rip....unless your name happens to be Beth and you have an on-again, off-again THANG with him.
The newly elected President of Broken Rock Reservation, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) has worked in and for various white businesses and organizations before returning to the reservation. Rainwater believes that he's seen the enemy from the inside. Rainwater tends to keep his thoughts to himself though he can articulate quite detailed plans to those he thinks need to know.

Rainwater has a master plan to increase the wealth and power of his people in Montana. And if that means stepping on John Dutton's toes, Rainwater doesn't mind. In fact he's going to go out of his way to do so. Rainwater can't stand looking at Dutton's ranch and knowing that it all used to belong to Native Americans. Rainwater would find nothing but poetic justice in using the white man's/woman's laws and loopholes to bring them down. 

In the mean time the California developer Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston) would like to bring condos and subdivisions to Dutton's neck of the woods. When he's rebuffed by Dutton, Jenkins looks around and finds out that Dutton's political power may not necessarily be what Dutton thinks it is. Jenkins plans to build right up to Dutton's property line and then use eminent domain and other tricks to take Dutton's ranch. Physically unimposing but dangerous in different ways Jenkins struggles to get respect from various Montanans, most especially Beth, who looks at him with the same joy a spider must have when it sees a fly.

In the first episode Lee Dutton is murdered in a cattle dispute. Kayce takes revenge but finds that doing so has changed who he thought his friends were.  The law starts sniffing around John Dutton's affairs.

The writing for the first season was uneven. Although we see in flashbacks that there are some reasons for characters' behavior, especially Beth's, I couldn't buy that no matter how upset/damaged she was that a grown woman would be able to behave as she did, particularly at her father's home, without some repercussions. Beth's loutish behavior constantly undermines the respect that her father and brothers otherwise demand. 

Speaking of repercussions, one of the sillier storylines is that there is a ranch tradition of branding certain men whom John Dutton thinks he can trust with the "Y" brand for Yellowstone. These men are often if not always ex-cons or otherwise criminally minded. They are the men who handle Dutton's dirty work. My problem is that these brands appear to be applied almost at random and certainly before the brandee knows exactly what is required. It's like congratulations, you're in the Mafia! Now let's go do some capital crimes and make you a witness before we even know if you're the sort of fellow who can keep his mouth shut or has anything to lose.
Does that seem too bright?

As the prodigal son and only Dutton child who is also a parent, Kayce gets some of the best writing, such as it is. His wife Monica is very dedicated to Native American history and correcting Eurocentric narratives, something which power brokers try to use to sway her and/or Kayce.

The show is shot in Montana and Utah. For those of you who are outdoorsmen or outdoorswomen, you will likely enjoy the wonderful forest, river and mountain settings and animal life-birds, cattle, horse, dogs, wolves, coyotes, bears, snakes, etc. The men are all very masculine and the women are all very feminine. And they like it that way. There are plenty of barfights either over women or instigated by them. The latter is Beth's specialty. This is a modern day Western, although the good guys may not even exist.

I was not bothered by the idea that some people might be quick to violence. But in some cases it appears that the people carrying out such mayhem aren't concerned that the authorities would do the most basic investigation. If a murdered cowhand is found only a few miles from his employer's ranch after he got in an argument with some other employees, one would think that the police might nose around asking some questions, not just shrug their shoulders and keep it moving. 

But dramatic violence aside the show also provides a fun and down and dirty look at what it takes to keep a ranch running, whether that be rescuing a calf stuck in a thicket, ensuring that the bulls and cows are kept apart from each other until the right time, learning how to break a horse so that it's safe to ride, scaring off bears and wolves from the cattle and a million and one other skill sets that are of little use to city folk but that are essential to smooth operations at a ranch. The soundtrack was very good: mostly country and blues-infused rock. Season Two just started. If you want to get in touch with your inner cowboy or cowgirl this is worth a look see. Not must see but look see.
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