Yellowstone the national park conjures up ideas of grandiosity, natural wonder and beauty. Yellowstone the show shares some other traits of the park, like old, stubborn, immovable rock and the sense that this has been around for a long, long time.
The series, a tentpole for the fledgling Paramount Network, stars Kevin Costner as an extremely successful rancher near Boseman, Montana, whose cattle land is being encroached on by mineral drillers, real estate developers and Native Americans, as well as just about everyone else in the state. It's got family drama and beautiful airborne shots of the Montana landscape, but mostly it's a call to the conservative ideal that you earned what you worked for (or more likely what your grandparents happened across), and you better damn well hold onto it at all costs.
Costner plays John Dutton, a man with a rancher's name who owns the largest contiguous ranch in the United States. Yep, he's doing alright for himself. John's stoic as predicted; you've seen this guy before in several Coster-with-a cowboy-hat movies. So much so, that you might let out a bit of a sigh. He's older now, so he needs more from his four children, who are forging their own paths within and away from the Dutton Ranch.
Son Jamie (Wes Bentley, who was much more interesting filming plastic bags than what does here) is a lawyer with political ambitions, a convenient ally for John since the landscape has literally and figuratively changed in the ranching business. Other son Lee (Dave Annable) stuck with Pa and is working the ranch. He's the good old boy. Daughter Beth (a vicious Kelly Reilly, who will always be that jazz-dancing woman from Black Box to me) joined the corporate world and is devouring everything in her path; Beth's the type of character who has a scene devoted solely to showing that she will absolutely destroy you if you mess with her, as one dumb tourist does when he tries to pick her up at a bar. And youngest son Kayce (Luke Grimes) is the one who gets the "divided by two worlds" shtick, as he's married a Native American woman and lives on a reservation breaking wild horses, with all the metaphors that entails. He's the western genre archetype of the quiet gunslinger (he's a former SEAL) who just wants to put the past behind him but gets pulled back in.
What's particularly disappointing about Yellowstone is that just about everyone who isn't a Dutton is the enemy, even the Native Americans who are only where they are because they were kicked out of everywhere else by the government generations ago. The pervading idea while Dutton is under attack is that the land -- and he definitely has too much of it, if his helicopter rides around it are any indication -- is his now, so it's unfair for anyone else to lay claim on it or even try to purchase some, whether it's because it used to be theirs or because someone else wants to build a resort on it. The Duttons are portrayed solely as the victims here, which doesn't allow for the level of nuance a good television show needs.
Yellowstone will hide behind traditional work ethic espoused by some as reason to make the Duttons the victims, all the while Native Americans stand on the other side of the border fence with their arms out saying, "Are you friggin' kidding me?" It makes it hard to root for the Duttons, even when greater assholes are eyeing their stake as a great spot for a par 5. And this doesn't seem to be about the sanctity of preserving some of our country's most beautiful land (though it's probably better off in the Dutton's hands than some of these other groups) as the Duttons never talk about that. It's about ownership, which is where Yellowstone comes off as icky rather than noble.
If you can get beyond that -- and plenty of people probably will, as this show clearly wasn't meant for me -- there is a family drama that makes up the other half of the show. But it's pretty bland family drama. The infighting is simmering at first, most plainly visible and interestingly in Kayce's story and his departure from the family. But even that is something we've seen on screen thousands of times. Think of Yellowstone as a more expensive Blood & Oil, the oil boomtown drama that was an odd choice even for ABC and limped to a 10-episode run in 2015.
I will give credit to Yellowstone for not cramming too much into the feature-length premiere. It's a pretty focused first episode that sets up the world John is dealing with, and the other members of the Dutton herd will no doubt see their stories expand in later episodes. The problem is that what it does focus on is too simple and Yellowstone doesn't take the time to make John enough of an interesting or likable character to carry nine more episodes of this.
Just watch Longmire instead.
Yellowstone premieres Wednesday, June 20 at 9/8c on Paramount Network.