Kevin Costner has done some of his best work in westerns, and even with the History miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” on his resume, his first TV series is something of an occasion. But “Yellowstone,” a modern-day western airing on Paramount Network, gets bogged down in minutia and politics, and generally winds up being about as exciting as watching a zoning-commission meeting.
Costner plays John Dutton, the world-weary patriarch of a Montana family, with a wayward son (Luke Grimes) and another, a lawyer (Wes Bentley), who’s eager to impress and please him. They’re caught up in high-stakes wrangling surrounding John’s ranch – the largest contiguous spread in the U.S. – where people still ride around on horses and bust broncos, never mind the luxury vehicles and suits and ties when they venture out.
Dutton is protecting a way of life, one beset by greedy developers, tribal interests (some operating casinos) and corrupt politicians. Among the myriad subplots, prodigal daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) also returns, bringing with her a hostility toward this outdoorsy paradise, which she had clearly sought to escape.
Reilly’s a good actress, and there’s plenty of assembled talent in smaller roles around Costner, including Cole Hauser, Gretchen Mol, Danny Huston and Jill Hennessy. But the storylines are almost uniformly clichéd – starting with the notion of grown kids living in their father’s larger-than-life shadow – and the characters aren’t nearly as distinctive or as interesting to look at as the lovingly shot wide-open spaces.
With his taciturn manner, Costner perhaps most closely resembles his role in “Wyatt Earp,” if the famous lawman had been born in the wrong century. But if “Yellowstone” is intended to serve as an updated “Dallas” – with a bit more explicit sex and violence – the comparisons pretty much end with the big money and cowboy hats.
The show continues an uneven rollout of original programs since the network formerly known as Spike TV was rechristened after its studio, including the miniseries “Waco,” since-scuttled series version of “Heathers” (an utter mess, that one) and the rather ho-hum period half-hour “American Woman.”
Landing Costner – and teaming him with director Taylor Sheridan, who directed “Wind River” and wrote “Hell or High Water,” both fine modern westerns – certainly looks like a bit of a coup for the channel, as it seeks to establish its creative footprint.
As noted, the show does possess a cinematic visual quality. It’s in the storytelling where “Yellowstone” doesn’t do much more than simply plod along – largely squandering, at least initially, its thoroughbred pedigree.
“Yellowstone” premieres June 20 at 9 p.m. on Paramount Network.