“Yellowstone,” which premieres Wednesday on the Paramount Network, is the latest in a long line of series about families with money, from “Dallas” to HBO’s currently unfolding “Succession.” They arrive regularly on our screens, with their biblical or Shakespearean overtones, to remind us not only that money can’t buy happiness but likely will make you miserable.
Set in southwest Montana on “a ranch the size of Rhode Island” owned and operated by cattleman John Dutton (Kevin Costner), “Yellowstone” is also the umpteenth modern take on the classic Old West western. Here, as there, we find Native Americans having to deal with white settlers — some of them have been in the neighborhood a while, to be sure — but also older white settlers in conflict with newer white settlers.
In a John Wayne film, the newcomers might have been East Coast Mining Interests come to disturb the timeless life of the Ranchers; here they bring artisanal cocktails, craft ice cream, plans for subdivisions, and golf. There is sadness at the passing of the old ways and the coming of the new.
“I remember when your way was the only way and the world was better for it,” an older gentleman, and supplicant, tells John, who is the law on his land.
“It’s taking threats to do what favors used to do,” John notes ruefully on another occasion.
There is no patriarch without his progeny. John has four, as dysfunctional as you would expect, and writer-director Taylor Sheridan introduces them individually, letting us know a little about who they are and how they operate, before bringing them all together under the same roof. It’s “Bonanza” with issues.
Oldest son Lee (Dave Annable) and youngest brother Kayce (Luke Grimes) are the more Western. Freelance wrangler Kayce, semi-estranged, lives on the local reservation with his Native American wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille), and their young son Tate (the very natural Brecken Merrill) and unkindly if accurately calls Lee “a 38-year-old bachelor living in your father’s house working 100-hour weeks for a nibble of his approval.” Of all the characters here, Kayce is most typically a hero — brave, generous, uninterested in money or power — and Grimes wears him like a lived-in second skin.
Between them are the less Western Jamie (Wes Bentley), a lawyer with political ambitions, and sister Beth (Kelly Reilly), a super-capable businesswoman and part-time hot mess. “It’s only the things I love that die, never me,” says Beth, who sometimes seems to be trying to. Some are weak and some are strong. Some want daddy’s love; some just naturally have it, whether they want it or not.
Among those bringing grief to the Duttons are Danny Huston as a devious developer, whose casting seems almost an homage to his father, John Huston, in “Chinatown.” (“This isn’t California, gentlemen,” Huston’s character tells his partner, “this is Montana — we can do whatever we want.”) The other, thornier thorn in his side, more complicated to extract, is Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), the newly elected chief at the Broken Rock Tribal Department, Ivy League with an ancient vision. Wandering cattle and disappearing fences get them off to a bad start.
It is, to start at least, very much — too much for some, I do not doubt — a story of men doing supposedly manly things, or being told to be a man when they’re not acting manly enough. Beth is the only woman on the ranch — her character is big, but way outnumbered — and the presence of a female governor (Wendy Moniz) and female senator (Jill Hennessy) doesn’t do much to balance that scale. (Monica is dramatically necessary to Kayce’s story, but in the episodes available for review, she is more reactor than actor.)
The performances are good all around, and creator Sheridan, an actor himself (“Sons of Anarchy”), has a knack for writing dialogue that sounds natural in the mouth however aphoristic it might look on the page. Even when Sheridan’s characters run to type, they’re played with subtlety and seriousness. Similarly, the photography by Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern World”) does not overdo the visual drama, letting the landscape and light and the faces of the actors speak for themselves.
Costner, at the head of it all, comes as close as any actor working today to belonging in this setting; he may not be the John Wayne of his generation, as if there could even be one, but he might be its Joel McCrea. Like many stars of old Hollywood — even older than the Hollywood Costner comes from — what he lacks in range he makes up for in authenticity and ease. John Dutton is a much less than perfect person, too concerned with having his way, protecting his property and coming off tough, but he is also played by Kevin Costner; and so we are liable to like him most of the time. He hurts too!
Whatever metaphors you may wish to extract from the breaking of wild horses, or how seriously you would like to take the narrative as a comment on challenges in the modern West, “Yellowstone” basically offers conflict for the sake of conflict, and character for the sake of character. TV’s family epics run from the absurd to the serious; Sheridan’s sits comfortably between them — it’s elevated comfort food, well conceived and well prepared, but still, you know, hamburgers and hot dogs, fried chicken and waffles. People find that very satisfying.
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd