In a recent episode of Yellowstone, Paramount Network's hugely popular contemporary Western series, veteran cowboy Lloyd (Forrie J. Smith) tells a young ranch hand that one of the roughest, toughest places he's ever been is Fort Worth, Texas. "Fort Worth, you just think the word 'fight,' and a fight'll find you," he says. It's a fun line that sneakily sets up 1883, the new Yellowstone prequel on the streaming service Paramount+, where the first two episodes were released on Sunday, Dec. 19. 1883 shows that Fort Worth has always been a fightin' town, the Duttons have always been fighters, and the West has always been a place of natural beauty and gray morality.
1883, which comes from wildly prolific Yellowstone co-creator Taylor Sheridan, follows James Dutton (Tim McGraw), John Dutton's (Kevin Costner) ancestor (great-grandfather, presumably) who founded the Yellowstone Ranch, and his family — wife Margaret (Faith Hill), daughter Elsa (Isabel May), and son John (Audie Rick) — as they head out across the Great Plains in search of a better life than the one they left behind in Tennessee.
Their journey starts in Fort Worth, where James is recruited by no-nonsense trail guide Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) and pragmatic Pinkerton agent Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) to help guide a caravan of European immigrants who completely lack survival skills to Oregon. James and his family are planning to head north until they find land that was worth the journey. James is not Brennan's employee, he's just traveling with the caravan. It's a mutually beneficial agreement where the Duttons get a little bit of safety in numbers and Brennan gets some capable riders and a very deadly shooter.
Brennan, played by Western icon Elliott in a role that feels like it was probably written for him, is a sad cowboy who lost his beloved wife and daughter to smallpox. He feels he has nothing to live for, but he wants to get his party to their destination safely, because that's just what he does — and he wants to see the West one last time before it gets settled. He and McGraw's James Dutton are iconic Taylor Sheridan men. They're unrepentant killers who do brutal, unjust things to protect the people they're responsible for, but they're hard-working men of their word who carry themselves with honor and dignity.
Brennan and Dutton drive the story, but they're not the ones telling it. The journey is seen through the eyes of Elsa Dutton, John and Margaret's strong-willed 17-year-old daughter, played by Isabel May. May, whose previous credits include sitcoms Alexa & Katie and Young Sheldon, is a revelation. She's equally adept at playing fierce and flirtatious, and the extreme old-timey accent she does, where she enunciates wh's like Andy Samberg in Hot Rod, actually feels natural coming out of her mouth, thanks to her intense commitment. Elsa is a young woman who's in the stream of life for the first time, and she describes her feelings and experiences on her journey in poetic voiceovers that feel like Sheridan articulating what his tales of the American West are all about. They're about freedom, which is "riding wild over untamed land with no notion any moment exists beyond the one you are living."
Fans of Yellowstone will find plenty of similarities in 1883, and plenty of differences, too. Through its first three episodes, 1883 is less soapy than Yellowstone. There's less family drama and more survival drama. Like Yellowstone, 1883 takes a lot of satisfaction in practical authenticity. The same way that Yellowstone loves detailed scenes of ranch work, 1883 is interested in the mechanics of crossing rivers and knowing how to not get bitten by a rattlesnake when you're doing your business in the bushes. And where Yellowstone at this point has a sprawling cast of characters constantly flailing around through chaos, 1883 is more focused, because it has a single, continuing event — the journey through the West — driving its story. Every character is on that journey, every plot revolves around that journey, and every character reacts to the journey in different ways. And its Old West setting makes the lawlessness more credible. The amount of violent crime the Duttons get away with injects a great amount of absurdity into Yellowstone, but 1883 is more grounded, because it was a more lawless time.
Speaking of absurdity, 1883 doesn't have a Beth character. 1883 has plenty of operatic drama — wait until you see Shea Brennan's intro scenes — but it isn't as swing-for-the-fences crazy as Yellowstone is whenever Kelly Reilly's foul-mouthed, reflexively abusive hellraiser is onscreen. The characters of 1883 feel closer to people who could have existed in the real world. In the long run, it remains to be seen whether 1883 will remain more (relatively) grounded, and if more grounded is necessarily better for entertainment purposes. Maybe a more realistic Yellowstone is a more boring Yellowstone.
But so far, it's the opposite of boring. There's always something exciting and excessive happening, like Billy Bob Thornton showing up as Jim Courtright, the City Marshal of Forth Worth, who dispenses a particularly severe brand of frontier justice. And it has that purplish, macho Taylor Sheridan dialogue that's harsh and philosophical at the same time. He comes up with a new aphorism every other line. No one else writes dialogue like him, and he builds an entrancing world with it.
Like with Yellowstone, there's stuff that will chafe liberal viewers but won't faze conservative ones, like McGraw's character being a haunted Confederate veteran who mourns the death of Confederate and Union soldiers alike alongside Union general George Meade (Tom Hanks in an out-of-the-blue, unspeaking cameo), and Black characters who don't face any racism in post-Reconstruction Texas. It would be a strange choice if the otherwise authentic 1883 skirts the issue of racism toward Black people for the entire season, especially considering how Sheridan never shies away from looking at race relations between Native Americans and white people, an issue that comes up in the very first scene of the show. I would be surprised if there isn't a scene at some point where Shea Brennan kills someone for being racist to his friend Thomas. That would be much more Yellowstone than pretending racism doesn't exist. 1883 doesn't have to be something it's not (a certain four-letter word that starts with a W and rhymes with "joke"), but it shouldn't avoid things that would naturally come up in its story, either.
Overall, 1883 is a grand, well-made, non-revisionist Western adventure that fans of the genre and the less soapy parts of Yellowstone will enjoy, should they choose to embark on the perilous journey from cable into the streaming frontier.
TV Guide rating: 3/5