One problem is the heavy-handed narration, which sounds a little too much like those letters read during Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” Here, the voice belongs to Elsa (Isabel May), the daughter of James and Margaret Dutton (Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
, whose pairing provides a strong country-music twang while allowing the married couple to wagon-pool to work).
A Civil War veteran (depicted in flashback during a later episode), Dutton has taken Horace Greeley’s “Go west” advice to heart, seeking a better life by making the dangerous trek from Fort Worth, Texas to Montana, where the present-day Duttons of “Yellowstone” reside. (While this is ostensibly a prequel, that’s a pretty flimsy connection.)
James is a tough dude, but he’s short on the guns needed to survive the wilderness, undertaking the trip with four women and a young boy (his family, plus a widowed mother and daughter). Grudgingly, he throws in with Elliott’s bad-tempered Shea Brennan, who is leading a group of immigrants seeking a better life along with his companion Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), who shares Brennan’s fondness for terse answers and harsh solutions.
To its credit, the show doesn’t pull many punches in painting its portrait of a near-lawless territory, with James receiving plenty of warnings when he arrives in Fort Worth in advance of his family. That’s punctuated, however, by stilted dialogue that often seems plucked from old westerns, such as James being told, “You pull your pistol in this town, mister, you better know how to use it.”
Writing and directing the premiere, Sheridan has orchestrated some high-profile cameos, and Elliott remains born for these kind of roles, providing the absolute best reason to give “1883” a shot. There are also casualties along the way, underscoring the high stakes associated with the westward expansion while adding an element of unpredictability to the drama.
Sheridan has built on “Yellowstone’s” popularity to become a major supplier to Paramount, with “1883” coming close on the heels of the mostly forgettable “Mayor of Kingstown.”
Westerns were plentiful in TV’s early days and are now fairly rare, so it’s always somewhat refreshing to see an ambitious show within that genre. But to paraphrase the advice Dutton receives, when you have the opportunity to mount a series of this scale in the rough-and-tumble frontier of streaming, you better know how to do it a little better than this.
“1883” premieres December 19 on Paramount+.