The impetus for bringing Lawmen: Bass Reeves to the screen was supposedly the fascinating life of Bass Reeves, the first Black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River, but you wouldn't know it was fascinating from Paramount+'s flavorless historical drama.
The series generated a lot of excitement early in its development, as it was once intended to be part of the Yellowstone universe as a spin-off of 1883 — Taylor Sheridan is still credited as an executive producer — but was later split off as the first season in a new anthology series under the name Lawmen, which will presumably follow new famous law enforcement officers in later seasons. In losing the Yellowstone connection and being transformed into an anthology partway through its development, it's possible Bass Reeves lost some of its creative identity; going through these early episodes, it sure feels that way. It's not a bad show that comes with a laundry list of negatives; it's a show that plays it so safe that it doesn't have many positives.
Based on the books Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves and Hell on the Border — the first two parts in Sidney Thompson's Bass Reeves Trilogy — Lawmen: Bass Reeves begins its first episode with Reeves (David Oyelowo, who also executive produces the show) as an enslaved man during the Civil War and ends with Reeves escaping his bonds and living among Native Americans until the war ends. That sets the pace for the series and Reeves' character development, which mostly consists of Reeves showing moral fortitude while being surrounded by a bunch of amoral a-holes. Sadly, even with the incredibly talented Oyelowo providing Reeves' award-worthy furrowed brow and wide-eyed earnestness, that's about the extent of Reeves' character: In a sea of lawless opportunists, Reeves is the good guy. End of story.
Starting with Episode 2, Reeves' domestic life of staying out of people's business and fruitlessly working farmland is upended when he's offered a chance to ride with Deputy U.S. Marshal Sherrill Lynn, cartoonishly and entertainingly played by a boisterous Dennis Quaid — the so-corny-it's-good "You got some brass balls, Bass" is a line I won't soon forget — and he's soon officially deputized by Donald Sutherland's Judge Isaac Parker, making history as the West's first Black Deputy U.S. Marshal.
The emotional center of the series is Bass' relationship with his wife Jennie (Lauren E. Banks), who provides a safe haven for Bass to recoup, replenish, and fill his heart after days and weeks on the trails. There are times when we follow her separately from Bass, but she doesn't do a whole lot more than have kids and keep the house. (Bass was as busy a procreator as he was a law enforcer; he had 11 kids over his lifetime.) Yet Lawmen: Bass Reeves tries to make the most of the scenes with Jennie back at the homestead, employing swelling orchestras during Bass' hugs with Jennie or spending too much time with Jennie's daughter and her budding relationship with a suitor despite not building them as characters at all. The show wants to do something with Jennie, but it doesn't know how.
Lawmen: Bass Reeves jumps around time in ways that may be historically accurate, but they aren't narratively kind. A childless Bass in one episode suddenly has four with one on the way in the next, while Bass goes on an adventure that doesn't seem specific to the era and could have occurred at any time. There are also some questionable editing choices, like abruptly cutting into the middle of a poker game rather than letting the tension of saloon gambling build, sticking with a pointless scene for too long, or ending scenes in the middle of conversations that you'd expect to go on for at least a few more beats. Whatever the case is, the flow is off in every episode.
The first full trailer had me excited for plenty of door-busting, yippee-ki-yay cowboy fun, but, at least in the first four episodes, the action is woefully predictable and bland. I get that Bass Reeves is a legendary marksman and that's one of the reasons he was given a badge ("I need a man with a good gun and a straight spine," Judge Parker tells him), but it appears everyone else he tussles with is firing guns for the first time. Bass Reeves never misses a shot — I mean never — and each is fatal, while his foes may as well be throwing handfuls of bullets at Bass, praying he chokes on one.
Despite Sheridan's name in the credits, Yellowstone fans shouldn't expect his same trademark soapy melodrama and sharp dialogue. Lawmen: Bass Reeves isn't concerned with the morally gray, preferring a binary history of black and white in a world before complexity was invented. Given his legend, we're owed a good Bass Reeves show; this just isn't it.
Premieres: Sunday, Nov. 5 on Paramount+ (first two episodes, followed by new episodes weekly)
Who's in it: David Oyelowo, Dennis Quaid, Forrest Goodluck, Lauren E. Banks, Barry Pepper
Who's behind it: Chad Feehan (creator, showrunner), Taylor Sheridan (executive producer)
For fans of: The Yellowstone universe, history
How many episodes we watched: 4