Josh Brolin has spent his career pushing the narrative boundaries of the West.
Roles in resurgent Westerns such as “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit” fortified the Oscar nominee’s place in the genre’s recent canon. His first major TV role was on ABC’s 1989 series “The Young Riders,” about the Pony Express.
The year prior to “Riders,” Brolin spent 24 hours believing he’d get his big break on CBS’ “Lonesome Dove” miniseries, having been cast as Newt, an orphan in the West, alongside his all-time favorite actor Robert Duvall. But the day after getting the role, the network pulled the offer, citing a contractual obligation to eventual star Rick Schroder.
“It was the greatest moment of my life,” Brolin recalls. “It is still the most elated I’ve ever felt about anything work-related and then it left as quickly as it came. I was absolutely freaking devastated.”
This career tango Brolin has danced with the Western is deeply rooted, but he doesn’t see himself as the Westerns guy that audiences do. Recently, he wanted to do another one, so he sent his agent in search of one on television. Enter Prime Video’s “Outer Range,” an existential meditation on the strangeness of the West with a side of sci-fi intrigue.
The series isn’t just a story of cowboys and territory struggles — and that’s what hooked him.
“I never want to do anything straightforward,” he says. “I find it boring. This felt like a major swing and it had all the room to fail, and I like those odds.”
“Outer Range” is a far cry from the early years of television, when the Western was king. “Rawhide,” “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Bonanza,” “Tales of Wells Fargo,” “Maverick” and the like were the epitome of appointment TV in the late 1950s and ’60s, defining what television could be before even it knew. They were capsules of carefully crafted Americana that portrayed the possibility of the West as an action-packed quest to be conquered in a half-hour.
“It’s no wonder the sounds and the grit of those old Westerns reached for operatic heights,” says “Outer Range” creator Brian Watkins. “The idea of a showdown is not a low-stakes, mumblecore event. It is a literal showdown, there’s a payoff at the end and the fun of that is what I hope we tapped into for ‘Outer Range.’”
The genre fell in and out over the decades, as belief in the American Dream, once defined by the West, ebbed and flowed. But when a Western dared to capture it again, more followed. There were resurgences in the 1970s and ’90s — and there’s one happening now.
Buoyed by the gradual — and then explosive — success of Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone,” from creator Taylor Sheridan, the Western is white hot in Hollywood again. The series’ sprawling multi-generational story of the Dutton family has spawned a franchise with almost half a dozen spinoffs in the holster, the first of which, Paramount+’s prequel series “1883,” starred Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. The next, “1923,” recently cast Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren.
“Outer Range” proved to be its own escalating hit for Amazon Prime Video, while the CW doubles down on Jared Padalecki’s “Walker” reboot by ordering the 1800s-set prequel, “Walker: Independence.” Elsewhere, Epix recently launched its “Billy the Kid” update and Spectrum renewed its game warden Western, “Joe Pickett.”
But it’s more than just about crowding the plain. On a few fronts, the TV Western is also drawing Emmys’ attention.
“Yellowstone” ended its fourth season in January as the highest-rated cable telecast in nearly five years, and stars Kevin Costner and Kelly Reilly are primed to follow it up with their first lead actor nominations after the cast scored a surprise SAG nom earlier this year.
“We’ve been on our journey for four seasons and we’re shooting our fifth now, so to start getting the recognition a little bit later just makes it even sweeter,” says “Yellowstone” and “1883” executive producer David Glasser.
The latter will run as a limited series, meaning Elliot, McGraw and Hill could score nominations without competing against their parent series’ counterparts. But the buzz isn’t contained to Sheridan’s creation.
For “Outer Range,” which has yet to be renewed for Season 2, Brolin’s towering performance could stand alongside Costner in the actor race, while his co-star Imogen Poots would fit right in with Reilly for actress. While the two series share a narrative space in the West, little else bonds them.
“‘Yellowstone’ is the story of a modern-day family protecting the land that has been handed down generation to generation,” Glasser says. “‘1883’ is about the quest to find that land, to find a better way of life for your family so it can be handed down generation to generation. It’s all part of a larger story.”
Glasser notes that Sheridan and the entire “Yellowstone” team consider it a compliment to see Westerns surge in their wake. If anything, the current boom proves that the genre doesn’t get enough credit for just how varied a narrative it can sustain, allowing for a more classically Western story such as “Yellowstone” to stand alongside something daringly original like “Outer Range.”
“’Yellowstone’ was the first — like we were with ‘True Grit’ — in bringing back the Western, and that’s a great thing,” says Brolin, whose daughter Eden appears on “Yellowstone.” “If you piggyback on that trend, you feel like you are piggybacking. But if you are coming with something within the genre that’s wholly original, then you feel good about it. There’s nothing other than horses and cowboy hats and maybe warring families in ‘Outer Range’ that reminds me of ‘Yellowstone.’”
”Outer Range,” specifically, is set against the Teton Mountains in Wyoming and uses the intertwined threat and allure of a bottomless hole at the wilderness’ edge to weave the story of a religious zealot’s rise, a family’s fall and the mind warp of time travel into the fabric of the Western.
“I think the West is a lot stranger than our narrative categories have always really portrayed,” says Watkins, who grew up in Colorado. “I wanted to write something that I felt encompassed the West I knew, as a place that was always reaching for transcendence. It is a place that is undeniably filled with mystery and wonder.”
But why is now the time for the West to find its cyclical relevance? Brolin says, like him, audiences want to see their perspective on a genre be challenged. Watkins has his own theory.
“I wonder if this is speaking to our current malaise,” the writer says. “We feel stuck, we feel like we want to reach up to a higher plain — or at least imagine a future that is different than the current place we live in. In that way, the Western is this real emblematic narrative of how and what we do with our dreams … so I’m thrilled there is such an investigation of the nooks and crannies of it right now. It’s a good time to write about cowboys and gunslinging.”