You need to suspend more than just disbelief, okay?
By Kevin Broughton
About three years ago, I started getting text messages from a friend back in Mississippi: “Have you watched Yellowstone?”
Well, of course I hadn’t. “Isn’t Kevin Costner the lead actor?” I asked. “You know, he’s not really known for his…well, acting.” My friend assured me that this didn’t matter. I remained unconvinced. A year went by.
My friend, who knows I write for this site, upped the ante. “You like Whiskey Myers, right? Bro, they’re all over the soundtrack.” My friend – we’ll call him “Johnny” -- knows me too well. Sure enough, just a few minutes into Season 1, episode 1, I was treated to Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” then this gem from the aforementioned Dallas rockers:
“Johnny” used excellent music like a 3/0 treble hook on my inner cheek, and I now I couldn’t shake loose from this soap opera if I wanted to. Indeed, it’s complicated.
Let’s get down to business, which is letting FTM readers know all they need to about Sunday’s premiere of Yellowstone, Season FOUR:
1. THE GREAT
Here are just some of the artists who have appeared on the soundtrack through the first three seasons:
Ryan Bingham (more on him in a moment:)
Whitey Morgan and the 78s
This list isn’t close to exhaustive. It is a fair sampling, though. The soundtrack is exquisite. Perfection.
2. THE VERY GOOD
Anyone who’s visited Big Sky Country knows what a wonderful backdrop any cinematographer will have to work with. Montana is ready-made cinematic beauty, and the guys behind the cameras on Yellowstone do not disappoint. Watch a few episodes, and you’ll want to visit Montana; I know it’s made me crave a return trip. It’s some of the best photography on television, period.
3. THE MERELY MEDIOCRE
Have you noticed that we’re a couple hundred words in and we haven’t discussed what Yellowstone is actually about? Things get dicey here.
The “Plot.” (Spoilers ahead)
Yellowstone is the name of the ranch owned by John Dutton, the unluckiest man alive. The plot? In each of the first three seasons, it’s this: SOMEONE IS TRYING TO TAKE JOHN DUTTON’S LAND!!!1!
In Season One, it’s the Injuns. Seriously. Not the scalping kind, but their honorable, suit-wearing and casino-owning descendants. Never mind that it’s 2018; forget the Bureau of Indian Affairs and gaming licenses. Heck, forget the civil court system. Those would get in the way of a classic cowboys-and-Indians narrative.
Seasons two and three feature corporate raiders and hedge-fund dudes who want to build an airport (two) and city (three)…ON JOHN DUTTON’S LAND!!!!
At first, they all offer John Dutton money; filthy lucre to make him wealthy beyond the dreams of all avarice. They also beat up his daughter and blow shit up. But so far, THEY HAVEN’T TAKEN JOHN DUTTON’S LAND.
4. THE BAD
Go ahead and pour a drink.
The characters and “actors”
This is typically called “the cast” in show business, but it’s helpful to break them down. Getting back to my initial concern when my pal pitched me the show: Yes, Kevin Costner is the male lead, playing the eternally besieged John Dutton. Costner has a 40-plus year body of work to judge.
Here’s one of the most memorable scenes in the first three seasons of Yellowstone:
There you have it. Kevin Costner, ladies and gentlemen. Actually, that’s not quite fair. Costner had the role of a lifetime in The Big Chill. It’s an accomplishment that will stand out long after he’s shuffled off this mortal coil.
Dutton has three kids. Well, he had four, but the oldest son – whose name is unimportant – got ventilated in the series’ first episode. That poor actor really got hosed on residuals.
Here are the three remaining Dutton offspring:
Kayce (pronounced “Casey”) is the untamed free spirit. He’s a war hero because of course he is. (Navy SEAL, natch.) He’s so alienated from his dad that he hooks up with an Indian woman (would you believe she’s absolutely gorgeous?) makes a baby with her, and lives in a trailer on the reservation. In the very first episode, his hot Indian wife gets a job teaching college, which can only make Kayce feel even more inadequate. He’s actually considering going back overseas and they’re arguing about it in the truck, when a meth lab explodes right next to them. Just a typical day on Yellowstone.
Jamie is a stupid guy who does lots of stupid shit. He’s a lawyer – manages to get himself appointed Montana Attorney General a few episodes in – with a wide sociopathic streak, forever doing self-destructive things. He murders a lady reporter in Season One. In Season Three, we learn that he’s not really a Dutton after all. No, sir. You see, John Dutton may be a gruff man, fighting off all those who want to TAKE HIS LAND, but he has a heart of gold. Many years ago, he adopted Jamie, the welp of a white trash dad and addict mom, when the former beat the latter to death. When Jamie finds out, his reaction isn’t profound gratitude to John, but resentment. He finds his biological dad – living in filth – and decides to turn against the Dutton family.
Beth is John Dutton’s only daughter. She’s a corporate raider, and we get a taste of her ruthlessness in an early boardroom scene; she reduces titans of industry to sniveling wretches with her acid tongue. But her hyper-capitalist days are soon behind her. John Dutton has called her home to fight THE PEOPLE WHO ARE TRYING TO TAKE HIS LAND. She deals with stress the way any woman in high finance would: By having a lot of casual sex with the ranch foreman. Beth can’t have children because when Jamie took her to get an abortion when she was 15, the doctors told him (but not her) that she would never be able to have kids if they do the procedure. Jamie being Jamie, he says “Fine by me.”
Rip is the ranch foreman. Another stray John Dutton picked up, he usually channels his anger into his work, or the occasional grudge-banging of Beth Dutton. Then again, he’s committed or been complicit in a half-dozen murders through three seasons. He’s the son John Dutton never had.
Jimmy goes from being a meth head in Season One episode one, to being duct-taped to the saddle to learn how to ride the next week, to a competent rodeo cowboy by the middle of the season.
Governor Lynelle Perry bears more than a passing resemblance to North Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem in real life. On the show, she’s banging John Dutton, because of course she is. In Season Three, she sides with those TRYING TO TAKE JOHN DUTTON’S LAND.
Walker is a ranch hand we see a lot of in seasons one and three. Oh, and he’s played by Ryan Bingham, far and away the best actor on the show. Yes, I know that’s counterintuitive. Back when The Sopranos dominated the popular culture, I had an unpopular opinion: James Gandolfini was not a great actor. How hard can it be for a fat, Italian Yankee to play a fat, Italian Yankee? Yes, Ryan Bingham was an actual cowboy in real life. And he’s the only actor in the entire cast of Yellowstone who comes across authentically. That says less about Ryan Bingham than it does the casting director.
5. THE PUTRID
The sad thing is, Yellowstone doesn’t have to be awful. It’s a choice made by the showrunners.
The Horrifically Lazy Writing
Years ago, a lady friend roped me into watching several episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. I was relieved of this duty after six or so instances of being able to recite the actors’ dialogue before it was said on screen. Just one hackneyed cliché after another.
All soap operas are essentially the same, whether the setting is an operating room or a roping pen.
In “Cowboys and Dreamers,” (Season Three, episode five) Kayce (newly installed Livestock Commissioner) breaks several laws to do the “right” thing. Some poor cowboy has killed himself – there’s actually blood and brain matter on the foreclosure notice. Kayce, with the acquiescence of the sheriff, sells the string of ponies and delivers the cash to the grieving widow. “Cowboys and dreamers,” she says, with wistful regret. “That’s all I’ve ever fallen for.” Ugh. But it gets worse when Kayce chats with the dead cowpoke’s son.
“Are you a cowboy?” asks the urchin.
“My daddy was a cowboy. I’m gonna be a cowboy, too!”
The Need for Extreme Suspension of Disbelief
Look, I get it: It’s television. Make-believe. Fiction. Not real stuff.
All narratives in TV and movies require the suspension of disbelief to some degree. But it’s to what degree that tells the tale. NWA wrestling in the 1980s was fake, and everybody knew it, but with its blue-collar/redneck sensibility, the NWA was still slightly plausible. But along comes the WWF, completely tipping the gaff with its ready-made backgrounds for each wrestler. The message: “Not only is this wrestling totally fake, we’re gonna turn the ‘sport’ into a cartoon for six-year-olds.”
Justified was six seasons of great television. Let’s stipulate that it strains credulity that a Deputy U.S. Marshall in Kentucky kills someone every single week. Yeah, that’s just a little much. What made such an outlandish concept digestible, week after week? Well, actors and writers (see above.)
Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Walt Goggins and others in that stellar cast distracted from the absurdity with their on-screen skills. And the writers used perfectly timed humor to highlight the stupidity of some real shit-for-brains criminals like Dewey Crowe.
Either Costner is doing all the writing, or the writers’ room is staffed with room-temperature IQ dullards. Here are some of the things we’re asked to accept.
Remember Jimmy, the meth head-turned-saddle-bronc-rodeo guy? Well, he hooks up with a really hot barrel racer (because of course.) So, it’s only natural that when she (played by Josh Brolin’s daughter) goes for a roll in the bunkhouse hay, her similarly hot, 20-something friend decides to knock boots with 60-something Lloyd, another ranch hand. It’s totally plausible.
Kayce, the war-hero SEAL, at another point when he’s considering joining back up, says, “Yeah, I’ve been talking to my sergeant about it.” Hey, dullards in the writers’ room: There are no sergeants in the Navy.
You think the bunkhouse romance between meth head Jimmy and the smokin’ hot barrel racer was a stretch? Hold on to your Resistol, Cowboy. I’ll see that and raise you a tale of true love between Colby – the one black dude on the show – and Teeter, a snuff-dipping, pink-haired skanky white girl.
Then there’s just the sheer amount of mayhem that takes place in this corner of Montana. Multiple murders, explosions, countless acts of eco-terrorism, and corrupt law-enforcement officials everywhere you look? Big Sky Country would be crawling with FBI, and maybe a couple of infantry brigades. But no. This is just the way things are, when someone is TRYING TO TAKE JOHN DUTTON’S LAND.
It’s not just disbelief you have to suspend. It’s also taste, and a chunk of your self-respect.
Season Four promises to be even dumber, if this “meet the new cast members” video is any indication.
An animal-rights activist (Montana is fertile ground for them, after all,) a lady with a New England Brahmin accent (who’s trying to TAKE JOHN DUTTON’S LAND,) and some new kid (“Everyone just calls me ‘boy,’” because of course they do) will doubtless combine to add all the authenticity one expects from a Costner-led cast.
In the Season Three finale, the people who are TRYING TO TAKE JOHN DUTTON’S LAND really ratcheted up the pressure. Beth’s office in downtown Helena is bombed. If the external shot of the explosion into the street is any indication, a pink, misty substance should be the only thing left of her. Other gunmen attack Kayce in his law enforcement office. We see him upend his desk for cover and draw his sidearm. John Dutton, having helped a lady change the tire on her minivan, gets turned into swiss cheese by a couple of dudes with MP5s. Rip frantically calls Jamie: “I can’t get anybody on the phone,” he says. “Rip, you probably shouldn’t call me anymore,” replies the sociopathic doofus.
Could this be the end for John Dutton? Will the people TRYING TO TAKE HIS LAND finally TAKE HIS LAND?
Tune in Sunday night on Paramount, for the craptacular Season Four premiere!
Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s downright bad television, save the music and scenery.
And yes, I’ll watch Season Four with every bit of self-loathing I deserve.
Damn you, “Johnny.” Damn you, Andrea von Foerster, brilliant music supervisor that you are. Without your stellar – nay, flawless – musical taste, I wouldn’t have written this misanthropic screed.
And I guess part of it’s my own fault for loving Whiskey Myers, et. al. so much.
I feel like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes.