By Liam Mathews,
Prestige TV is for liberals. There must be a handful of people in America who voted for Trump and enjoyed Succession, but for the most part, self-consciously high-end cable TV of the kind found on HBO and Showtime is made by and for people in blue districts. Scripted conservative TV tends to be workmanlike, unambitious broadcast fare like Blue Bloods, Last Man Standing or Kevin Can Wait. This is why the Paramount Network’s distinctly red Yellowstone — which ended its first season on Wednesday — is such an outlier.
The show is led by a major movie star — Kevin Costner — and every episode was written and directed by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, an auteur move that doesn’t really happen in episodic TV. It’s as pedigreed as anything on FX, one of the networks Paramount is trying to compete with. And, crucially, it’s a bigger hit than anything currently airing on FX, which shows that the eight-month-old Paramount Network is really onto something. In the coming months and years, it will be interesting to watch and see if Paramount becomes the one and only destination for well-made TV for red-leaning audiences, with Yellowstone leading the way.
Yellowstone‘s first season is 2018’s second-most-watched show on ad-supported (non-subscription) cable, behind only The Walking Dead, which is in a class of its own ratings-wise. The premiere netted almost 5 million viewers in live+3 ratings, and the finale earned the season’s highest ratings and managed about 2.4 million live viewers, more than twice as many as the episode of last summer’s big cable hit The Sinner it was up against. It’s a genuine hit for Paramount.
Hits are rare; well-made conservative dramas are even rarer. And though I have no idea what co-creators Taylor Sheridan and John Linson’s personal political beliefs are, Yellowstone is a conservative show. It’s working in two of the most traditional of genres — the Western and the soap opera — and its sex, profanity and graphic violence can’t hide the fact that it’s not a revisionist Western soap; it plays by the rules of the genre. It’s Dallas shot on location with F-words. And it traffics in ideas and characters conservatives love: family over everything (even though the Duttons hate each other, they’re tight); the noble veteran (Luke Grimes‘ stoic and conflicted Kayce Dutton was a SEAL); the hot girl who’s more macho than the boys (Beth Dutton [Kelly Reilly] and finale-introduced stripper-turned-cowhand Avery [Tanaya Beatty] fit this archetype). More than its politics, its cliche-bound genre traditionalism is why it’s not a critical success.
Still, it is correctly categorized as "prestige TV," a term which denotes budget more than quality. And Yellowstone is very expensive. Fortunately, it spends its money very well. Even small parts are often filled by recognizable actors (shoutout to Josh Lucas showing up for about 10 minutes of screentime throughout the season), and the performances are strong across the board, with Reilly and Grimes doing particularly notable work. And lugging the cameras out to the Montana wilderness paid off in beautiful shots like the final one of the season.
In the genre of conservative prestige drama, Yellowstone is almost alone. The only other example I can think of is Sons of Anarchy, which conservatives loved because it was a family-over-everything show about white outlaws. (Not coincidentally, Linson and Sheridan both worked on Sons of Anarchy, Linson as an executive producer and Sheridan as an actor.) But Yellowstone won’t be the only conservative prestige drama for long. There are two potential peers premiering in the next few weeks, Amazon’s Jack Ryan (based on the Tom Clancy novels beloved by military enthusiasts) and Sons of Anarchy spin-off Mayans MC, though that one’s primarily Latinx cast may drive away conservative viewers. Still, the success of Yellowstone shows that there’s a market for conservative prestige TV, so keep an eye out for other cable networks and streaming services to try it.
The Paramount Network should try it most of all. This could be the new network’s thing. It’s still trying to figure out its identity, but it’s betting more on being "the Yellowstone network" than "the Heathers network." If you’re trying to differentiate yourself in a crowded market, "FX for people who drive Dodge Rams" is pretty distinctive. Not every show it does can be as prestigious as Yellowstone, but it can find its own The Ranch.
Yellowstone will return for Season 2 in 2019. Season 1 can be streamed on the Paramount Network’s website with a cable log-in.
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