In an age of television where nothing is more attractive to networks than established I.P., it’s not enough to build a solidly performing drama on a humble plot of land. It’s all about the hydra-headed franchise these days, with even a series like “Law & Order” clawing back its territory following a decade of austerity measures. So it was only a matter of time before “Yellowstone,” Paramount Network’s superlatively popular nouveau Western, began manifest destiny.
The first such expansion comes in the form of “1883,” a far-flung prequel series focused on the forebears of John Dutton (Kevin Costner), the beleaguered cattle rancher at the center of “Yellowstone.” Decades before defending their massive Montana ranch from rapacious developers, they were settlers hoping for just enough luck and fortitude to survive the long journey west. The titular time period means hot-streak creator Taylor Sheridan going from a neo-Western to a proto-Western, complete with pistol duels and frontier justice.
Sam Elliott and Tim McGraw co-headline “1883,” with Elliott as Shea Brennan, a hard-charging wagon master trying to outrun his grief, and McGraw as James Dutton, the trunk of the Dutton family tree. Shea and James forge a tenuous partnership as they aim to lead a wagon train and a herd of cattle from Fort Worth, Texas, to somewhere in Oregon. (Subsequent seasons would presumably explain how the Duttons wound up in Montana instead.) Faith Hill — McGraw’s real-life better half — co-stars as James’ wife Margaret, whose primary focus is their children, moppet John Sr. (Audie Rick), and his fierce older sister Elsa (the magnetic Isabel May).
Elsa provides the voiceover for “1883,” which opens with a vignette from an especially devastating setback to the Duttons trek west before flashing back to the trip’s auspicious beginnings. Relatively auspicious, anyway, since the series revels in exploring the litany of mortal threats its characters face. Besides smallpox, which is spreading unabated, the Duttons and their travel companions run up against such indignities as stultifying heat, brazen bandit gangs, and rattlers as poisonous as they are well-camouflaged. In other words, turns of fate that will ring familiar to anyone who played the iconic classroom computer game “The Oregon Trail.”
But get all the “You have died of dysentery” jokes out of the way before heading back to “1883,” because they’re certain not to jibe with the show’s appropriately dire tone and brutal set pieces. While “1883” aims to explore what motivated men like James and Shea to undertake such a treacherous journey, it’s pretty obvious from the earliest scenes. The Fort Worth of the era was a hellmouth in its own right for Civil War veterans plotting a course forward while carrying the psychic scars of war. Even before the wagon train sets off in earnest, there’s enough pestilence and desperation to evoke survival horror, as if “1883” had spun off from “The Walking Dead,” cable television’s phenomenon emeritus.
Sheridan reportedly developed the series after being urged to do so by studio executives, so it’s to his credit that “1883” never feels like a perfunctory franchise expansion. Of the three episodes made available, Sheridan directed two and wrote all three, a larger foundational investment than most dramas get. Along with cinematographer Ben Richardson, he takes full advantage of the panhandle Texas shooting locations to render gorgeous shots that communicate the promise and peril the landscape holds. The production design never looks less than luxe, as is the case with “Yellowstone.”
The cast is uniformly great, with Elliott lending natural authenticity and gravitas with his weathered mien and marble-mouthed delivery. McGraw holds up well against Elliott, and that goes double for the excellent LaMonica Garrett, who plays Shea’s closest ally, Thomas. Hill also turns in a solid performance, thereby helping to dispel the old canard that real-world acting couples struggle to recreate their chemistry on screen. Hill and McGraw’s marriage adds a layer of charm to moments of swoon-worthy fan service. (“I’m gonna build you a house so big you’ll get lost in it,” says James to Margaret, a winking reference to the sprawling main lodge that houses the present-day Duttons.)
Despite the presence of two country music legends, the most pleasant surprise in the cast is May, who carries the voiceover and quickly cements Elsa as “1883’s” most alluring character. May’s star turn is made all the more interesting by her slight acting resume, which was previously anchored by a starring role in Netflix’s low-profile kid-com “Alexa & Katie.” Elsa serves a crucial role as the child on the cusp of adulthood whose still-forming identity is colored by the outsize responsibilities such a journey necessitates. May is the perfect blend of tough and tender, and it’s no wonder Sheridan felt confident centering her character.
The scripts suggest Sheridan is even more at ease writing for the old-school Duttons, who face more organic challenges that make “1883” feel less soapy than the series that inspired it. But the writing isn’t without its snags. The voiceover dialogue swings between poignancy and puerility in prose as purple as a prairie clover. There’s also a blinkered approach to racial difference in the show, which always feels uncomfortable for a story set as a torrent of Jim Crow laws are taking effect. If the rest of the wagon train takes issue with Thomas being African-American, they’re doing an anachronistically admirable job of concealing it. (That’s to say nothing of the raft of thorny issues at play when telling a story about settler colonialism.)
Still, “1883” has the characters, the scope, and the vision to become an exciting new chapter of the “Yellowstone” franchise, as well as a rare example of a spin-off that never feels beholden to its source material.
“1883” premieres Sunday, Dec. 19, on Paramount Plus.