Television writers, evoking moods and memories, can create characters from locations. New York City in “Sex in the City” was as much of a series character as the women who were navigating their way through it. The island of Oahu in “Hawaii Five-O” leaves its mark on the show’s crime stories. And while a location might elicit warm feelings of a glamorous life in a buzzy metropolis or a fantasy life of sun and sand, the associations won’t save a weak show. “Yellowstone” has the grandeur and expansiveness of the rolling hills and big sky of Montana but it’s not enough to distract from a slow pace and one-dimensional characters.
Kevin Costner plays John Dutton, owner of the largest contiguous cattle ranch in America. Wealthy but not disconnected from the work and the people that make his lifestyle possible, he is engaged in a battle to save his land from Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston), a developer wishing to expand the closest town and indigenous leader Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) who wants to grow his chain of casinos and see John permanently off the land as a way to reclaim his people’s power and influence.
The action doesn’t waste time establishing John’s primary conflicts and while that tension is believable, it could be more thought-provoking. Huston brings a world-weary nastiness to Jenkins but doesn’t have much to say. Birmingham is given more to do but with mixed results. As Rainwater, he tells John that he represents a past reckoning rather than simply progress. It’s a good start but it doesn’t go anywhere, and Rainwater is quickly established as a traditional villain whose immoral choices lead to a terrible personal cost for John.
John’s children aren’t any more complex. Wes Bentley plays Jamie Dutton, a lawyer with political aspirations. The synthetic humans on “Westworld” show more emotional complexity than this wooden litigator. His sister Beth (Kelly Reilly) is confrontational and always ready for a fight. There is little that makes her relatable, which could change if her backstory sheds light on why her approach to the world is so off-putting but so far there’s nothing here to root for and even less to like. Kayce (Luke Grimes) is the black sheep of the family. Estranged from John and barely interested in letting him have a relationship with his grandson, his only cryptic hint at the cause of the discord between them is that John has always asked too much of him.
Costner is watchable, particularly in westerns, as he effectively captures the rugged man of the people demeanor that often works for cowboy characters. He plays John with an unflappable resolve but not much else. It’s him against the big, bad men who want to steal his family’s land and legacy. In the first episode, Beth asks him who he wants her to fight and he says, “everyone.” Without spoiling a pivotal scene, it’s the closest he has to a tender moment with his children. You’re better off enjoying “Yellowstone” for its pastoral landscapes.
“Yellowstone” is on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT on Paramount Network.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.