If you’re not already watching “Yellowstone” on Paramount Network, then you’re missing out on the best show on television. It’s “The Godfather” in Montana, starring Kevin Costner in his best role since “Dancing with Wolves.” Now, from “Yellowstone” co-creator Taylor Sheridan, comes the origin story of the Dutton Ranch in “1883,” which debuted after Costner’s latest this week and continues on the new Paramount+ streaming service.
It’s easy to forget in these modern days, sitting in our air-conditioned homes, 60-inch OLED hanging on the wall and super-computer in hand, that America was once wild, free, and available to those with the stones to take it. The road West was long, but millions upon millions of Americans, some newly arrived on these shores, some just looking for a better life or a chance to start over again, took that long and dangerous journey to find themselves a plot of land to call their very own.
In “1883,” Taylor Sheridan shows us what that journey is like for a family we know, the Duttons. Of course, the Duttons we have grown to know over four seasons of “Yellowstone” are the descendants of these brave pioneers, but they have the same fiery, success-at-any-cost spirit, and that’s what makes them fun to watch.
Leading this generation of the Dutton family is Tim McGraw as James. When we first see James, he’s being chased by thieves trying to steal his horses and wagon. Through some sly horsemanship and deadeye shooting, Dutton kills them all. Looking on is the other main character of this first episode, Sam Elliott as Shea Brennan, a Pinkerton detective hired to get a group of immigrant pioneers to Oregon. Elliott is the glue of this cast, at least so far. He’s a criminally under-appreciated star and the authenticity of this performance drips in the sweat off of his serious silver ‘stache.
“1883” starts us off in Texas, in the wild cowboy town of Fort Worth. Today it’s part of the DFW metroplex, one of America’s fastest-growing cities and home to Horned Frogs, corporate headquarters, and more Chevy Suburbans than horses, but it still has a bit of the wild cow town spirit we see in this episode.
The scene-stealer of this first episode also serves as our occasional narrator, Dutton’s daughter Elsa, played by Isabel May. From what we’ve seen so far, the rattlesnakes and thieves should be scared of her, because she’s certainly not scared of them. At one point Elsa is assaulted by a rotund drunk man who stumbles into her bed. She fights him off long enough for her father to blow his head off. Apparently Beth Dutton wasn’t the first firecracker in the Dutton family.
By the end of the first episode, we see the Duttons and Elliott’s large crew of German immigrants in a long wagon train evocative of the storybook tales we read as children. Somehow though, this show seems like it will illustrate the darker side of that journey. “Died of dysentery” may have been a bad way to lose “Oregon Trail” on your Apple IIe during computer class, but for these pioneers it was a true threat.
From the teases I’ve seen of upcoming episodes, the Duttons will face every manner of challenge on their way to what will become the Yellowstone Ranch we know and love. Everything from the wilds of nature, to Indians who wanted the scalps of pioneers as trophies, to disease and malnutrition will look to keep these brave folks from reaching the promised land. You can bet I’ll be there for every minute.
This is the western we all need right now to remind us how the West was won, and how the brave souls who embarked on a long, dangerous journey into the unknown helped give us the America we have today. Freedom isn’t free, and it didn’t spring up all of sudden in a trendy Brooklyn diner with avocado toast and a Tesla. “1883” reminds us that without the efforts of real pioneers, who risked life and limb to trudge across the great plains, none of what we enjoy today would be here. This is the story of America, and you shouldn’t miss it.