Creators: Taylor Sheridan
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Sam Elliot, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Isabel May
Tagline: “I Knew Nothing Of The Horror That Hides In Freedom’s Shadow”
Trivia: The “White Elephant” bar, which is mentioned when the Duttons are in Ft. Worth, still exists today.
In today’s TV landscape, networks are drawn to well-established Intellectual Properties (IPs), making it crucial to do more than craft a compelling drama in a modest setting. The spotlight is now on sprawling franchise potentials, resembling a hydra with its multiple storylines. As expected, “Yellowstone,” the immensely popular modern Western on Paramount Network, has embarked on its own manifest destiny.
Set in a distinctive time period, the show’s creator, Taylor Sheridan, transitions from a neo-Western style to a proto-Western, complete with thrilling pistol duels and a sense of frontier justice.
Sheridan is known for creating shows and movies that, while not explicitly Western, embody the essence of classic Westerns. Works like Yellowstone, Sicario, Hell or High Water feature the iconic landscapes and character archetypes of a Western, seamlessly brought into the present day with a hint of revisionist storytelling.
“1883” takes you on an epic journey with the Dutton family as they leave the heart of Texas for a Montana ranch, the central setting of this present-day series. Guided by the resolute James Dutton (played by Tim McGraw) and the weathered Shea Brennan (portrayed by Sam Elliott), the strong matriarch joins them, Margaret Dutton, brought to life by Faith Hill. However, traversing the unforgiving terrain reminiscent of the Oregon Trail isn’t a walk in the park, as any trailblazer familiar with its challenges would attest. Their intended destination being the Oregon coast, the narrative kicks off with a curious mystery: how did the Duttons veer so dramatically off course?
Reportedly conceived at the suggestion of studio executives, “1883” doesn’t come off as a mere franchise expansion—a credit to Sheridan’s storytelling prowess. What sets “1883” apart is the continuous reminder amidst the perils and hardships—the allure of the West, brilliantly captured with Paramount’s whopping $10-million-an-episode budget.
It’s a drama that showcases unparalleled scope, be it the elaborate Texan towns or the breathtaking vistas that lie ahead. The sheer investment, both financial and creative, in building this world is palpable. Not to mention the delightful surprise of star-studded cameos, including appearances by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Hanks, adding an extra dash of excitement to the mix.
From the very start, a foreboding hint suggests inevitable ruin. While certain aspects of “1883” require a nuanced touch, it undeniably showcases Sheridan’s ability to elevate television to a cinematic level, proving that with the right vision and, of course, a substantial budget, TV can indeed rival the grandeur of the big screen.
In a previous blog post, I discussed the pivotal role of the opening scene, and both Yellowstone and 1883 showcase its significance. In the initial five minutes of 1883, the prequel to the Montana-set epic, devastation unfolds, painting a raw picture of a chaotic world. The sprawling landscape, despite the calamity, serves as a stunning backdrop, emphasising the contrast.
Yet, what truly makes 1883 compelling isn’t just the impressive effects. The series heavily relies on the presence of Sam Elliott, whose portrayal of Shea Brennan is nothing short of exceptional. In just a few episodes, Elliott masterfully illustrates the profound impact of a harsh world on a broken man. Together with LaMonica Garrett, who plays Shea’s Civil War comrade, Thomas, they breathe life into the narrative. While Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s performances occasionally waver into the melodramatic, Elliott and Garrett bring a solemnity that lends authenticity, averting any hint of campiness.
Interestingly, despite the array of prominent names and seasoned genre actors, Elsa’s narrative takes centre stage in 1883 to some extent. Elsa’s voiceover provides a unique outsider’s perspective, presenting the tale of a resilient teenager caught up in the wave of Manifest Destiny, facing dire threats at every turn.
However, it’s important to note that Elsa’s voiceover, though a fascinating choice, can also be viewed as a flaw in scriptwriting.
It’s overwritten and sometimes bland, lacking genuine insight into whether Sheridan intends for it to be profound or if it’s a representation of how he thinks teenage girls wrote in 1883.
Moreover, this flaw has intensified the confusion between providing a character’s internal monologue and offering a genuine perspective from that character.
Elsa’s narration often encapsulates only a superficial sense of wonder, narrating an adventure that doesn’t predominantly involve her.
In conclusion, while 1883 showcases remarkable elements and performances, it’s not immune to the occasional scriptwriting pitfalls, especially concerning utilising voiceover and maintaining character authenticity throughout the narrative. These aspects can be areas for improvement, ensuring a more cohesive and engaging viewing experience for the audience.
Elsa’s segments in the show, though affected by Sheridan’s tendency to create drama around women by placing them in peril, aren’t lacking in substance. May, akin to Hill, may seem oddly modern in style, yet as mother and daughter, they believably complement each other.
Regarding pace, the show might feel slow for some; “1883” possesses a deliberate storytelling approach. It takes its time, steadily building up tension over several episodes before erupting into intense gunfire or action scenes.
While the plot is certainly a part of it, the true essence lies in exploring the diverse characters populating this world. Each main character is multi-dimensional, possessing motivations driving their actions. Shea seeks to honour his late wife’s memory, immigrants search for their own free land, Elsa is on a journey of self-discovery, and James and Margaret yearn to keep their children safe.
Every character has a purpose for embarking on this arduous journey, and as the season unfolds, their arcs naturally find resolution, one way or another. The fascinating aspect is that each journeyman embodies a different theme, a central focus of the show over time.
From innocence and young love as represented by Elsa to honour and regret epitomised by Shea, observing how these characters grapple with or embrace their qualities unfolds as a captivating and profoundly engrossing watch. The depth and evolution of these characters add significant depth and intrigue to the overall narrative.
Despite its imperfections, “1883” possesses the essential elements—engaging characters, a vast scope, and a distinct vision—that could mark it as a promising new instalment in the “Yellowstone” franchise. What’s even more remarkable is that it breaks free from the typical spin-off trap of being too tied to its source material.
One notable aspect that stood out to me was Sheridan’s approach to the show’s beginning. Instead of a clichéd scene with Kevin Costner and a worn-out photo album, he opted for a more creative opening.
It’s refreshing to see a departure from overused narrative devices; it’s a testament to Sheridan’s storytelling finesse (with a slight exception regarding women’s voices).
So, for all you “Yellowstone” enthusiasts out there, “1883” is a series that absolutely deserves a spot on your watchlist. If you’re a budding scriptwriter, investing time in watching this show can be incredibly valuable. It offers a chance to learn from its notable writing strengths and, equally important, its areas for improvement.
Happy viewing and happy learning!
Verdict – 3.5/5 Stars in my book