When Yellowstone’s first season debuted on the Paramount Network in the summer of 2018, it looked like a surefire critics’ darling. At the time, Yellowstone’s co-creator Taylor Sheridan (who is also the drama’s head writer and occasional director) was on an incredible winning streak, drawing raves for his Sicario and Hell Or High Water screenplays and strong reviews for his writing and directing of the snowbound crime thriller Wind River. Sheridan had shown a real knack for twisty plotting and colorful dialogue, coupled with a rare understanding of the issues affecting modern rural America.
If anything, the biggest concern with Yellowstone before its premiere was whether it would find an audience. Although Paramount Network dabbled in original programming pre-Yellowstone, circa 2018 it hadn’t established itself as a serious rival to HBO, AMC, or FX. Even with a bankable star like Kevin Costner (with a solid neo-Western pedigree) playing the mega-rich Montana ranch owner John Dutton in a soapy, violent story about family feuds and bitter property disputes, it seemed a long shot that the show would be a smash.
Yet here we are, over three years later; and in terms of total weekly viewers, each Yellowstone episode draws the kind of numbers cable TV hasn’t seen since the heydays of The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones. And that’s without a clear and obvious streaming outlet. (Before CBS All Access became Paramount+, Yellowstone’s production partners signed a deal with NBC’s Peacock to stream full seasons of Yellowstone, but not the new episodes.) With over 10 million viewers per episode, this show outdraws almost everything on television besides sports and singing competitions. It is beloved.
That fandom, though, hasn’t translated to buzz. Over the past few months, the entertainment media has been pumping out stacks of reviews and essays about Succession, a cable drama with a fraction of Yellowstone’s audience. Yellowstone does get written about—and sometimes by writers who really dig it—but for the most part it’s ignored. It’s not making many year-end Top 10 lists. The cast isn’t competing for industry awards. The show doesn’t even inspire sassy “so bad it’s good” pieces. It’s just not that widely discussed.
I interviewed Sheridan a few weeks ago, for a New York Times article I wrote about the new Yellowstone prequel series 1883, which debuted this past Sunday on Paramount+. I asked him about the conversational void surrounding Yellowstone and whether it bothered him, given that his work immediately before the series had been so acclaimed. The Hell Or High Water screenplay was Oscar-nominated, for heaven’s sake. Wind River won Sheridan the Best Director prize at Cannes’ “Un Certain Regard” section. The Sicario sequel Sicario: Day Of The Soldado drew more mixed reactions… but at least it was debated.
Sheridan, unsurprisingly, insisted that Yellowstone’s lack of critical attention and awards doesn’t bug him. As far as he’s concerned, he’s making an entertaining, beautifully shot, and marvelously well-acted show, aimed at the folks he grew up with: rugged individualists who work on farms and ranches and have watched in frustration as their way of life has been eroded by voracious capitalists and well-meaning but blinkered bureaucrats. That the show has such a wide audience is validation enough that he’s doing something right. He’s telling stories no one else is telling, and he’s making them pop. (Sheridan keeps connecting, too: 1883 is a heavier show overall than Yellowstone, telling a grim story about what Oregon Trail wagon trains were really like, but its sneak preview on Paramount Network still drew nearly five million live viewers and Paramount+ announced that the first episode was its most-watched series premiere to date.)
For me though, I still find the largely muted media response to Yellowstone befuddling. I say this not because I think Yellowstone is a great show. It has had moments of greatness across its four seasons. It has featured some unforgettable scenes and crackling performances; and Sheridan’s dialogue remains pleasingly punchy and direct. The series has also been plagued by persistent weaknesses, too, but even at its clumsiest, Yellowstone has offered a lot to examine, analyze, praise and decry. I covered the first and third seasons for Vulture, and while my opinion of the show varied wildly from episode to episode, I never ran out of talking points.
Granted, a lot of what I wrote about included the ways I felt Yellowstone fell short. In our interview, Sheridan admitted he breaks a lot of the rules of prestige TV storytelling—mainly by keeping plots stuck in neutral for weeks and then abruptly lurching ahead. For me, the bigger problem is that whenever the story does suddenly introduce jarring twists or new complications, there are rarely any lasting effects. The various members of the Dutton family and their closest allies have each faced death and escaped, multiple times. Unforgivable betrayals get forgiven. Unbeatable foes get beaten. Every character not named John Dutton seems to change jobs every three or four episodes. Nothing sticks.
There are other issues. Sheridan likes to write tough, colorful women (and Kelly Reilly is doing yeoman work as the toughest and most colorful of all, John’s brassy daughter Beth), but the result is that many of them come off as unstable and/or cartoonish. Too many Yellowstone storylines resolve with violence—again, without consequences. And while Sheridan admirably engages with real-world issues like the thoughtless exploitation of natural resources and the shameful neglect of Native Americans’ rights, Yellowstone nearly always defaults to its portrayal of John Dutton as the stubborn but noble guardian of a better, older way of life—even when that puts him at odds with environmentalists and Montana’s Indigenous population.
All of that said, it’s hard to name many popular dramas even trying to sort through the kind of pressing 21st-century American western concerns that Yellowstone digs into on a weekly basis. Two of the closest comparisons to Yellowstone on TV today are Succession and Billions, in that all three are about the cruel and wickedly entertaining games that the moneyed and the politically influential play. But while Yellowstone isn’t as consistently great as those other two shows, it often feels more consequential. If nothing else, Sheridan seems to care a lot more about the not-rich people who get jerked around and badly bruised when the bigwigs start wrestling.
In other words: Yellowstone isn’t 9-1-1 or The Equalizer or any of the other mega-popular “case of the week” network series that are generally ignored by TV critics and awards-giving bodies. Yellowstone is substantive. It could stand up to weekly scrutiny. So why has it been left to thrive mostly in the shadows?
To some extent, I think sentiment hardens when it comes to what the entertainment media covers. Once critics and fervent TV watchers determine a show isn’t worth following closely, the “not significant enough” tag is hard to lose. Sometimes just the names of these series become shorthand for “popular schlock that no one with taste actually watches.” (I can’t count the number of times over the past few years I’ve seen someone on social media toss out Young Sheldon as an example of network TV’s worthless garbage, when it’s actually a finely observed, genuinely sweet show with its own unique sensibility.)
Again, Sheridan has said he doesn’t care that Yellowstone doesn’t get written about much, and I believe him. Maybe it’s a freeing thing, to make the show he wants to make and to get over 10 million viewers an episode with almost no media pushback or public pressure. But it is weird to think about those 10 million people spending an hour each week sweating out the twists and turns of such an ambitious, sweeping contemporary western… and then hopping on the internet to read more and finding little.
The job of the press isn’t just to help set the agenda for what readers should care about but also to reflect what actually matters to people—if only to leave behind an accurate document of the times. Decades from now, pop culture scholars are going to look back at the amount of coverage different TV shows got in fall of 2021 and assume that Americans were more obsessed with Yellowjackets than Yellowstone. And like it or not, that’s just not so.