Taylor Sheridan's cowboy drama is one of the most popular shows on TV. And no one saw it coming.
Have you ever watched a show and felt like no one else is watching with you? That's how many people who tuned into Paramount TV's Yellowstone felt week to week... until they realized there were millions of people just like them.
The fact is, Yellowstone is one of the most popular shows on TV. It's not something we've written about before, but given all the conversations around the show on social media and Reddit, we thought it was about time.
Today, we're going to look into the origins and themes of the show to extrapolate how it became such a huge title and why people continue to tune in. So...
How did Yellowstone become one of the most-watched dramas on cable?
One of the first things you learn about pitching a TV show is that the first question and exec is going to ask you is, "Who is this for?" They want to know what demographic you're trying to reach and they want to know what channel it would be on.
Well, in 2018, Paramount TV heard a pitch from Taylor Sheridan. He was the writer behind such cult hits as Hell or High Water and Sicario. He was writing about interesting characters and managing several different points of view. That garnered him critical success, an Academy Award nomination, and the opportunity to direct his next script, Wind River.
This all led him toward TV. Toward a plot that was deeply personal to him. Sheridan explained to Deadline that it was important to ensure that the series' writing and ranch setting was authentic.
"The challenge to this world is... it's not a terribly difficult plot. But if you didn't grow up with cowboys and in this world, and you don't know this world, it's a really hard world to write because you're going to fall back on the clichés of that world," Sheridan said. "People tune in to the show for varying reasons, but the authenticity of the show is its bedrock. From the saddles that are used, from the kind of horses that we use, to the situations that I place them in that if you don't spend your afternoons moving cattle, you don't know those situations exist."
That kind of authenticity helped him convince Paramount TV and Kevin Costner, who apparently was excited to be in Montana and see all the vistas. But in reality, it was the writing that drew him in.
“I’ve always liked the notion of playing with who is a protagonist and allowing our heroes to be flawed, and really question what they’re doing morally, ethically, and keep them really human,” Sheridan told Variety. “I don’t like my good guys to be all that good, and I don’t like my bad guys to be all that bad, even though they may do really bad things. And I think that makes them relatable.”
The show's third season debuted with 4.2 million people watching. And more people are catching on during the pandemic. According to the most recent "Watched At Home" report from The Digital Entertainment Group, which measured through the week ending on Oct. 24, 2020, all three Yellowstone seasons appeared in the Top 10 movies and TV shows.
Yellowstone follows the Dutton family, which is involved in local politics, crime, and control over the largest contiguous ranch in the United States. We follow John Dutton (Costner) who is under constant attack by land developers, an Indian reservation, and America’s first National Park.
There are stories about dinosaur bones, cattle bloat, and PTSD.
The show is massively successful. Paramount Network renewed the series for a fourth season in February and announced that Sheridan would receive a mega overall production and development deal with ViacomCBS Entertainment & Youth Brands, which includes Paramount Network.
So what makes a show like this so popular?
I think the first thing to cite is the show's pilot episode (read and download the Yellowstone pilot here). It's a great setup for the whole world. Even if you know nothing about modern cowboys, you learn quickly. The Duttons own a ranch, they want to keep their land out of other people's grips, but money is tight.
And there's a war going on for the control of the town.
You can't just be good to get viewers, you have to have stars to help draw people into a network like Paramount. Or get eyes on a platform like Peacock. And Costner continues to help them grab attention.
Costner weighed in on the genre’s appeal, telling Gold Derby, "Maybe we want to vicariously live through the days where we’d like to arbitrate our own problems instead of like when you feel offended you have to call a lawyer. You would like to handle it but you’ve got to call a lawyer or call an agent or a PR person, and I think there’s something in us that deep down we would love to be able to sometimes have the satisfaction of arbitrating our own problems. Without people knowing it, they tie in a little bit to that taking a level of justice or what they perceive as justice and enjoying that idea."'
You also have to see a gap in the audience no one else does.
Sheridan had that right from the pitch.
“It was the notion of a man who had inherited the seventh generation of this massive cattle ranch and reaching a place where he was aware of his own mortality, and who could he trust to shepherd this ranch into the next generation?" Sheridan told Variety. "And when you have a piece of land as big as this is, it’s almost a kingdom. And so does that make you a king? Kings, they don’t employ morality when they’re making decisions. Their job is to preserve the kingdom. So it lends itself to some really fascinating questions about us.”
Make no mistake, this show occurs in modern America, but it is Shakespearean. It's the story of a king losing his grip. And how his children maintain his place, and also yank it away. The family dynamics translate past the small corner of Montana and can apply to families and situations all over.
The American dream is relatable
I'll be honest, I had not watched Yellowstone before last week. I got Peacock and decided to check it out. I was surprised. I was surprised by how much I cared about these people, how little I know about the evolution of the American West, and how little I knew about Native American reservations, laws, and Indigenous people.
Once I started watching, I couldn't stop. Here's a paragraph from Vulture that I think distills how this show took off.
"[...] the typical generational drama on American TV is about power for power’s sake, and about the anxiety of the new generation living up to and overtaking those who came before. On Yellowstone, those beats come hand in hand with a more existential anxiety. John Dutton’s enemies aren’t just generic baddies who want what he’s got—if they were, he wouldn’t care so much if they beat him. The battles on Yellowstone are about the idea that one way of living is just better than the others. To be a rancher, or even better a cowboy, a real cowboy, is a purer, more authentic, better life. And it’s no coincidence that this show about the painful anxiety of that life being taken away is, in its third season, one of the most-watched dramas on cable."
What I found most interesting was how the show dealt with masculinity.
This is a show where characters fight each other with fists as much as they connive behind one another's backs. Everyone gets punched, kicked, shot, and some people get murdered from time to time.
"Grit" is a good word to describe the tone. And we see that grit through what some would label toxic masculinity.
This is a show about pride and legacy seen through a masculine lens. Even when the show injects women, it's to suss out how the men compete and how the women get sidelined in this world. I'll get into that a little later, but for now, the men are our focus.
I bring this up because the show is focused on American exceptionalism and the juxtaposition of the people who become victims of that exceptionalism. In America, white men have been the majority and been in control since the inception of America.
What I think the show does well is showing how desperate they are to maintain this control and maintain this legacy. Even as we see how it has affected others.
For the Duttons, it's broken their family apart, made the children into monsters, and caused the death of other family members. And the dissolution of a few marriages. For the people around them, we see how it caused Native Americans to live on reservations, turned the region into a hotspot for crime and inequality, and allowed for a few rich white men to control the fate of everyone else.
Part of the Dutton ranch operation is getting guys out of prison, looking for a new start, and hiring them. This is a nice idea in theory, but they then brand those men and control their lives. Causing them to commit crimes to keep John and his family out of prison.
This is a very interesting way to frame masculinity and toxicity, while still allowing characters to be "manly."
But overall, the show still focuses on these white men and their problems.
But diversity is missing
One of the things I think the show needs to figure out is diversity. I will say that I was really impressed with the storylines of the first season and the breadth of the topics they wanted to tackle.
But as the Vulture article I mentioned earlier says, "There are a handful of Black ranch hands in the bunkhouse, too, and there have been a few women over the show’s three seasons. They’re always on the margins, but Yellowstone is happy to make room for them in its meritocratic vision of American value. There’s plenty of space for anyone who can do the work, anyone who will willingly shape themselves into the cowboys the Yellowstone needs and leave anything else behind. The bunkhouse is the way, the truth, and the light. It will teach you how to be strong and to have worth. It’s a supremely masculine, American, whiteness-inflected ethos of how Yellowstone yearns for the world to work."
I do think the show understands this and is trying. I will say that I find Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly) to be one of the most compelling characters. She's a powerful and smart woman trying to help her father make a massive landgrab to preserve their legacy. She's doing it to make up for an accident that killed her mother.
And Reilly plays the character without remorse.
Still, not every show can do everything. And I think Yellowstone is taking steps forward to broaden the scope and the intentions of the diverse characters as we go. But who knows what season four holds.
Summing it up
Yellowstone is a complicated show, and explaining its success is a many-faceted hurdle. It's easy to say, "Be a great writer and attach a star," but I think that's most of how the business works today.
The big lesson for us is how this show found its audience. It knew they were always there.
By being confident that a show about a kingdom would succeed because it was about the worry and anxiety of a family, they showed how the widest audience could be attracted to the show. They also pitched a world that felt unlike anything else on TV and would attract people like me who just wanted to learn more about this way of life.
Are you a fan of Yellowstone?
Let us know in the comments!