1883, Paramount Network, 10 episodes, 60 minutes each
While fans of the modern ranching drama Yellowstone eagerly anticipate a fifth season for the popular Paramount Network series, which revolves around fictional Montana cattle rancher John Dutton (played by Kevin Costner) and family, they don’t have to limit themselves to reruns. This prequel series, from Yellowstone co-creator Taylor Sheridan, delivers all the trials, tribulations, tension and superlative scenery of Yellowstone with the bonus of covered wagons, Indian attacks, gunfights, steam trains and smallpox—enduring staples of the Old West.
The Duttons featured in 1883 are James and Margaret, a married couple emigrating from Tennessee’s pine country, portrayed in natural fashion by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, the country music power couple who married in real life in 1996. The action in Episode 1 unfolds far from Montana. James is riding alone in his wagon, headed for Fort Worth, Texas, where he’ll meet up with Margaret, their eldest daughter, Elsa (Isabel May), and other family members. Beset by bandits on horseback, James has no trouble shooting down these moving targets in a performance unmatched in classic Westerns by either John Wayne or Randolph Scott. Unlike those other two screen heroes, the Dutton patriarch vomits when finished killing in self-defense. In dangerous Fort Worth one character tells the Dutton patriarch that neighboring Dallas would be a far safer place for his family, while someone else warns that if you pull your pistol in Fort Worth, you had better know how to use it. Of course, by that point the viewer already knows how readily James can dispatch badmen, but we get affirmation when he shoots down two pickpockets in the middle of the street.
While James arranges accommodations at the Hotel Calhoun, the only decent place to stay in Fort Worth, the rest of his family rolls in by train. Narration is provided over transitional scenes by the venturesome Elsa, who at one point says, “The whole world felt possible, and I was ready for it.” As it turns out, she isn’t quite ready for the drunken man who stumbles into her Hotel Calhoun bedroom loaded with evil intent, and no doubt she will be further tested by the perils of the frontier in future episodes.
Another no-nonsense main character is Captain Shea Brennan, portrayed by screen legend Sam Elliott, who fits most moviegoers’ impression of a real cowboy. We first meet him doing something most “reel” cowboys never do—sobbing uncontrollably. Smallpox has taken his entire family, so he burns down his prairie homestead with late family inside and then contemplates suicide by bullet before his levelheaded partner, Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), gets him back on his feet. Shea and Thomas head to Fort Worth, where they’ll lead a wagon train full of peaceful, unwary German immigrants and, as fate and the script have it, the Duttons, too. But it is still a long way to Montana Territory, and in Episode 2 more action unfolds in Fort Worth, where we see Billy Bob Thornton, portraying real-life City Marshal Jim Courtright. For those into genealogy, 1883’s Margaret and James Dutton are the great-grandparents of Yellowstone’s John Dutton. The Dutton dynasty continues.