31 Pilots in 31 Days: Yellowstone

When it was originally on: 2018-present

Original network: Paramount Network

Where you can stream it now: Peacock.

Had I seen it before: No.

What IMDb says: A ranching family in Montana faces off against others encroaching on their land.

Why I picked it: I like to diversify between network shows, basic cable, premium cable, and streaming. Can you name a basic cable scripted drama post-2015 that’s as big a hit as Yellowstone? I certainly couldn’t.

It’s also interesting how Yellowstone seems to have garnered their audience pretty organically over a longer period of time, vs. the streaming ecosystem where shows are often overnight successes or not very successful at all. That means a lot of Yellowstone fans are likely consuming it the old-fashioned way, one episode a week. A pilot for such a show has a tougher challenge compared to some streaming pilots that can count on a website quickly thrusting the audience into episode 2 before anyone has time to ask themselves if they actually want to keep going. Admittedly, Yellowstone does sidestep this a bit by having a 90-minute pilot not counting commercials as opposed to their usual 50ish minute episode, but it’s certainly still one pilot as opposed to two separate episodes smushed together.

[HEADS UP: I’m about to spoil some stuff… but only stuff in the VERY FIRST EPISODE of a tv show so it only half counts right? Anyway, if you want to be able to go into these pilots totally fresh, maybe go watch the Yellowstone one and then meet me back here. Cool? Cool.]

What I liked: So, this is kind of like a rural Succession where there’s one patriarch, John Dutton, and then several kids with varying levels of loyalty to the patriarch, and their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of what they might offer the family business. What I think is particularly interesting is that two of the most loyal of these kids have fairly white collar jobs. One is a lawyer, the other some kind of unspecified business executive. At the end of the pilot their oldest brother who did live on the ranch and live essentially same lifestyle as Dad is dead, and so moving forward we’re going to have to watch this older, set-in-his-ways Montanan learn to place more trust in these other two kids who may be loyal, but have pursued different kinds of careers and may not be able to relate to Dad in quite the same way.

By far though, the most interesting character we have here is their other sibling Kayce. Kayce is happily married to an indigenous woman, and lives on the reservation with her and the rest of her family, including their young son. This is going to get interesting since there’s a new chief in town who’s on a mission to… I don’t know put white people in their place? Get some land back? As tensions between the Dutton family and the natives escalate, Kayce is caught in the middle. He seems to be loyal to his wife and her people… yet the show is quick to remind us that no matter how well he treats the indigenous, he’ll never be one of them.

When we leave, Kayce still hasn’t admitted the full truth of what he did to his wife, which makes for a great proverbial other shoe that I can’t wait to drop. His wife’s grandfather has urged him to go back to the Dutton ranch. His conflicts, both external and internal, are the ones that would keep me watching.

What I didn’t like: I would’ve loved more character development for both John and the new chief, Thomas Rainwater. These two represent the central power struggle that seems like it’s going to define the entire series… yet they’re two of the most flat characters in the pilot. Dutton is just… a guy who owns land and doesn’t want to sell it. I don’t know that much about him beyond that. Does he know people are literally branding themselves with the ranch logo? Is he cool with that? Does he encourage that? Right now, John is neither a gritty, Tony Soprano-esque anti-hero nor a classic, idealistic hero I can really root for, and the show isn’t even inviting me to guess where on that spectrum he might fall.

Meanwhile… Thomas Rainwater doesn’t have any defining characteristic besides resenting white people. Now of course, it totally makes sense for indigenous people to resent white people, no denying that, but surely they can have some depth and dimension beyond that, no? The one main scene we do get with Rainwater is also him talking to a U.S. Senator… leaving me to wonder how much of what we see is truly him and how much was a performance to get what he wants. I would’ve loved a scene or two with Rainwater and some other indigenous characters. Is he different around them? Do they view him differently because he didn’t grow up on the reservation?

I think the show was so intent on making sure we were introduced to the entire ensemble that we can only scratch the surface with those characters we do get.

Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Not really. There’s what… 10 seasons of Dallas that I haven’t seen and it seems like that could scratch a pretty similar itch and


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