In ‘Yellowstone’ Prequel ‘1883,’ Sam Elliott and Tim McGraw Lead a Gritty, Old-Fashioned Western

For years now, writer Taylor Sheridan has been writing Westerns set in the modern world. So it makes complete sense that he would finally get around to doing the real thing. “1883,” Sheridan’s new show for Paramount Plus, is a prequel to his massive hit series “Yellowstone” over at Paramount Network. But while the latter is set firmly in the now, the former is a total throwback to the actual Western genre. It’s a mix of new sensibilities with that classic macho touch John Wayne would approve of. And you can’t get more macho than Sam Elliott and country star Tim McGraw getting together to lead and smack wimps around. It also cannot be denied that this is an entertaining show if you don’t mind over-the-top dialogue glossed over with sweeping wide shots.

The premise here is that we’re getting the backstory of the Dutton family. “Yellowstone” fans know the modern version of the clan is led by invincible patriarch John Dutton (Kevin Costner). “1883” is the tale of how his forbears trekked into Montana to settle the land. Into a dangerous Fort Worth, Texas walks James Dutton (McGraw), who is seeking passage for his family on a wagon train and cattle herd outfit to Oregon. The men to talk to are Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott), a man haunted by his wife’s death from smallpox, and his right hand Thomas (LaMonica Garrett). James’s family includes wife Margaret (McGraw’s real-life wife and fellow country star Faith Hill), son John Jr. (Audie Rick) and older, more rebellious daughter Elsa (Isabel May). Shea notices James has the toughness and ability with firearms that could come in handy. He’s already frustrated that also paying for passage are a group of European immigrants who only know oxen and don’t own guns. When entering the vast plains, difficulties await like the need for food, supplies and Native American populations already living there.

What Sheridan knows how to do so well is not try to reinvent the Western so much as update it. His screenplays for films like “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario” took on modern themes about economic inequality or the Mexican drug war, but with recognizably rugged, romantic or damned characters. Part of the massive success of “Yellowstone” is that certain audiences probably enjoy its throwback attitude to a particular kind of American romanticism. “1883” claims to be about the West as it really was, in particular when exploring how much early colonizing was done by European immigrants who didn’t always fit the Marlboro Man stereotype. Yet most of its style is that pumped up idea of the American West. When James walks into Fort Worth there’s a shootout every two minutes, and characters talk as if they know a camera is placed nearby with lines like, “in this town mister, if you have a gun you better know how to use it.” The moment some poor bastard pickpockets John the thief is instantly strung up by a vicious crowd. On the train to meet dad, Elsa also gets slapped by a family member who warns her to be a proper lady, telling Margaret not to spare the rod. It’s like “Little House on the Prairie” meets “Tombstone,” which also means the show is instantly watchable as a guilty pleasure.

One can also guess Sheridan is hoping red staters or viewers of certain leanings will tune in with small winks at those pesky debates over gun rights. Shea is not only disappointed that his European crew don’t know anything about horses but looks aghast when they meekly inform him their country outlaws guns. He actually has a line berating them for traveling thousands of miles with “no skills.” Lest you need more assurances that guns are essential, as soon as the Duttons settle in a local hotel a big, slobbering drunk tries to rape Elsa and gets a bullet through the head courtesy of James. Now, the Old West was certainly more dangerous, lawless terrain than contemporary Fort Worth, but we get the point Taylor. Although it must be mentioned that history buff Tom Hanks drops in for a cameo in the second episode for a flashback of James’s time serving during the Civil War. The political winks are so tamely injected that they shouldn’t discourage a fan of red blooded Westerns from tuning in. Once the wagon train makes its way into the unknown the show becomes even more entertaining in a rugged style. 

In the tradition of any decent Western, Sheridan, who directs the pilot episode, knows you need sweeping vistas to get the audience involved. Elsa narrates with overcooked lines about sunsets that look like fire and swims in vast lakes. In fact most of her narration sounds plucked from a supermarket paperback. Streams of cattle are guided through immense mountain terrains as Elsa’s gaze takes in the sight of grand canyons. The casting also helps. Sam Elliott is one of the great modern actors in this genre while McGraw and Hill are also born to play these roles. They swoon and embrace while James utters, “I’m gonna build you a house so big you’ll get lost in it.” You wouldn’t know they’re successful country singers because Sheridan thoroughly smears them in mud and sweat, so we can truly see them as pioneers taking on the big American frontier. By the third episode they’ve encountered dangerous rivers and roaming Native Americans, who Sheridan rightly portrays as the land’s original inhabitants startled at these outsiders coming in as if they own the place.

If you like “Yellowstone” for its melodramatic, epic tone, then “1883” will serve as a fulfilling extra serving. Those who scoff at overdone dialogue and any hint of American masculinity tamed by women characters who can ride and shoot just as well, this might not be your brand of whisky. Yet Sheridan manages to make a new series that connects to the original without referencing it too much. This series could be discovered by viewers who have never watched an episode of the Kevin Costner hit. If they don’t mind the Stetson-wearing testosterone, then it’s a wagon trail that will prove entertaining enough to follow.

1883” season one begins streaming Dec. 19 with new episodes premiering Sundays on Paramount+.