1883: A Yellowstone Origin Story
Created and Written by Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Sam Elliot, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Isabel May
1883 is a prequel to the show Yellowstone, the Kevin Costner starring primetime soap on The Paramount Network (streaming on Peacock, go figure). Yellowstone has been steadily adding viewers with each season and was considered a cult hit until last year… when it garnered enough attention to just be called a hit. With anticipation mounting for the upcoming fifth season, Paramount has gone all in on the “Yellowverse,” greenlighting FOUR spinoffs, 1883 being the first.
Far from being Yellowstone: The Olden Days, 1883 opts for a different type of story and tone. While Sam Elliot is billed first, this show gained cultural buzz for stunt casting real-life spouses and 90’s country-music Homecoming royalty Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Imagine people’s surprise, then, when 1883 scored an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. This bizarre combination of pop-culture nostalgia, Western pedigree, and critical acclaim makes 1883 a must-watch limited series.
1883 fits this month’s theme of–
–by taking the “back in my day” grandparents’ slot.
…Seperately, I was trying to watch The Price is Right on Paramount+ and the show was glitchy for some reason. I saw 1883 beneath and decided to give it a shot.
I finished two days later.
James Dutton is a former Confederate captain who’s lugging his family’s things to Fort Worth, Texas. There, he plans to meet them and wagon to Oregon to build a homestead as far away from his past as he can.
On the way to Fort Worth, he meets Shea and Thomas, two former Union officers who’ve decided to act as guides for a massive group of German immigrants wishing to make the same journey. Upon meeting the immigrants, Shea quickly realizes he needs more help. Meanwhile, after a drunken outlaw tries to attack Elsa, James’ daughter, the Dutton patriarch realizes he needs more muscle. The two parties agree to warily trust each other and make the journey together.
As you may have noticed by the show’s title, they don’t exactly end up in Oregon…
I found 1883 to be a rich feast. I mean that with all its culinary connotations. This show has gorgeous cinematography, sweeping direction, layered writing–really a cornucopia of moving drama. It’s also heavy, sinking in viewers’ guts like a doomed migrant crossing a river.
Sorry, was that last comparison too graphic? Too bad, because this show bares everything as its unfortunate travelers head north. Snakebites, drownings, cholera–1883 details every which way Trail walkers bit the Great Plains dust. Due to this blog’s schedule, I had to watch this show in October; little did I know it be fitting, as 1883 was the most harrowing, intensely horrifying experience I’d encounter last month.
The experience was also incredibly moving. While my ancestors didn’t travel The Oregon Trail, they were homesteaders, living in sod houses (like hobbits!) for their first years in the United States. They faced many hardships similar to those detailed in 1883, and I felt a breathtaking kinship watching these travelers make their journey.
Homestead history comes with a complicated past regarding Native Americans and “Manifest Destiny.” I’m happy to report that 1883 deftly handles its indigenous characters, even tactfully showing the differences between Shoshone, Lakota, and Crow attitudes towards settlers. I’m not indigenous myself, but members of the aforementioned tribes have said the show is largely accurate and merits positive discussion.
As you can tell by now, “positive discussion” is largely my review of this show.
While there were a couple of characters’ backstories I wish the show would’ve explored, the show capitalizes on near every chance it’s given. Tim McGraw’s character, James Dutton, was a Confederate captain, fighting for an evil cause. That’s not to say every member of the Southern forces was evil (hell, like any war, many were drafted), but we never get the full picture of Dutton’s motives to become an officer. What’s more, he’s respectful of LaMonica Garrett’s character, Thomas, a black Union officer, and James is righteously furious at racist “deputies” in a later episode. When asked about his time in The Civil War, James is deflective, offering only glimpses of the horrors witnessed. His specific attitude hints at a fleshed-out story–one that, unfortunately, the viewers don’t get to see.
Another scuff on this show’s reputation is Elsa Dutton’s narration. Isabel May, if she plays her cards right, could be the next Jennifer Lawrence, and she does her damnedest to sell some, frankly, pretentious voice-over work. Movies and television with gravitas must always deal with this pitfall, but it seems that many recent efforts have fallen prey—be it Foundation, Zach Snyder’s Justice League, or Midnight Mass. Like these shows, some of 1883’s narration is evocative (one musing about a tornado is particularly chilling). Much of it, however, could’ve been cut since it simply describes what’s happening on screen anyway.
Beyond these issues, if a viewer can handle the bracing intensity of this show, the rewards are vast. These hardships are trivial compared to what lies ahead for those willing to take this rewarding journey.