Review: Prequel series takes 'Yellowstone' back to Old West
The tale of "Yellowstone," creator Taylor Sheridan's uber-macho Montana-set series that is like "Succession" in cowboy chaps, turns back the clock with "1883," Sheridan's gritty prequel series which traces the origins of the Dutton family dynasty.
Sheridan — the czar of the Paramount Network, who also has "Mayor of Kingstown" on the air and another "Yellowstone" spinoff in the works — is right at home in the time period and with the rhythms of the Old West. "Yellowstone's" characters already do pretty much whatever they want, but "1883" (which is available on Paramount+) takes things a step further by unfolding in a setting where anything goes and laws come and go with the breeze.
Tim McGraw is James Dutton, who will one day be grandfather to Kevin Costner's John Dutton but here is a man traveling north by horseback with his family — including his wife Margaret (Faith Hill, McGraw's real life wife), his teenage daughter Elsa (Isabel May of "Alexa & Katie," who narrates the series) and his young son John (Audie Rick) — to find a new home.
They're hitched to the caravan of Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott, same as he ever was) and Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), who are leading a group of immigrants to Oregon. Along the way there are geographical boundaries, thieves, troublemakers and various other hurdles, as well as a nasty rash of smallpox that already claimed Shea's wife and child. The series opens with him torching his home with their bodies in it, so you know even on his best day he's not going to wake up with a smile on his face and a gleam in his eye.
As their journey across the Great Plains progresses, there are various interpersonal issues to wrestle with and people to shoot; in Fort Worth, Texas, a pickpocket is shot, looted and hanged all in a matter of minutes. It's the Wild West for a reason, and Sheridan embraces all the genre tropes you'd expect. (Guest star Billy Bob Thornton gets in on the action, too, showing up as a Marshal in the second episode.)
"Yellowstone" has always been the kind of show that it seems like Sam Elliott should be in — in the series, Forrie J. Smith plays a senior ranch hand who looks like he could be Elliott's stunt double — so it's fitting that Sheridan has found a way to weave him into "Yellowstone's" DNA. "1883" is expansive enough to stand on its own, but its ties to the original series give it grounding. We know where it's eventually headed, but that doesn't take away from the journey of getting there.