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'Yellowstone' Is A Sophisticated Effort To Create Prestige TV For Rural America


Kevin Costner returns to television tonight in the debut of the Paramount Network series "Yellowstone." Costner plays a Montana rancher fighting to preserve his land and family. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show is a sophisticated effort to create prestige television for rural America.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Yellowstone" wastes no time in showing Kevin Costner's John Dutton as a rawhide-tough rancher who will do whatever it takes to solve a problem, including shooting a valued horse after it was severely injured in a collision with a land developer's truck.


KEVIN COSTNER: (As John Dutton) Best I can offer you is peace.

DEGGANS: That scene is more than a showcase for Dutton's strong will. It's a foreshadowing of all the threats he faces as owner of the largest contiguous cattle ranch in America. He's a widower with four adult kids. None has what it takes to succeed him, especially middle son Jamie, who's obsequious enough to suggest a compromise with a nearby town that wants to annex part of the ranch.


COSTNER: (As John Dutton) When you say no, it must be the death of the question.

WES BENTLEY: (As Jamie Dutton) I understand.

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) If there's even a hint of maybe, the questions won't stop until they find something you can't say no to.

DEGGANS: There's a shifty developer who wants to gentrify the wide, open spaces for his millionaire buddies, played by perennial heavy Danny Huston.


DANNY HUSTON: (As Dan Jenkins) A friend of mine in Jackson Hole was talking about their rodeo, and Bozeman doesn't have one. Why not?

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) Well, that's because nobody here cares about rodeos.

HUSTON: (As Dan Jenkins) You're wrong, John. Every millionaire I know wants to be a cowboy. Authenticity is the one thing that money can't buy.

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) Well, parading us in front of your friends, Dan, isn't an honor. It's an insult.

DEGGANS: And there's a self-righteous Native American chief who wants to keep Dutton's cattle after they wander onto the reservation that he controls.


COSTNER: (As John Dutton) They don't belong to you.

GIL BIRMINGHAM: (As Thomas Rainwater) They don't belong to you either. They belong to the people now.

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) If you act like a thief, Thomas, I will treat you like one.

BIRMINGHAM: (As Thomas Rainwater) How can you stand there on a ranch the size of Rhode Island and accuse me of theft?

DEGGANS: And that's where "Yellowstone's" story hits a huge snag because Dutton's cowboy way of life is presented as a proud tradition stretching back six generations. But men like Dutton often amassed land and power by taking it from people who look like Chief Thomas Rainwater. "Yellowstone" positions Rainwater as a villain with sketchy methods, not so subtly encouraging viewers to side with Dutton. It's a missed opportunity for deeper drama.

Written, directed and produced by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, "Yellowstone" is a lushly produced family drama, sort of like the prestige television version of "Dallas." But Dutton doesn't have the maliciously fun appeal of a J.R. Ewing. In fact, few characters here are particularly likable or compelling. Dutton's daughter, Beth, for instance, is a walking cliche - a hard-drinking, damaged and emasculating woman who acts like she stepped right out of a "Saturday Night Live" skit about strong, damaged female characters, especially during a meeting where she browbeats an oil company executive.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We don't want to merge.

KELLY REILLY: (As Beth Dutton) No one wants to merge. You have a 3 to 1 debt ratio. It'd be easier to sell VCRs. What do you think is going to happen when I dump our 18 percent share tomorrow morning? You will have the unique distinction of being the only drilling company to go bankrupt in the largest oil boom of the last century.

DEGGANS: Yeah, that guy went along with what she wanted. It's strange to say this about the man who starred in Western classics like "Dances With Wolves" and "Open Range," but Costner struggles to summon the weary grit of John Dutton. He's less authentic than you expect in a role he seems born to play. Though Dutton's character is flawed, "Yellowstone" clearly champions his values. It feels like an attempt to brand Paramount Network as a place for sophisticated stories about heroes in rural America. But "Yellowstone" would do better with a story that presents a more expansive, original vision of what makes an American hero. I'm Eric Deggans.


Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.