When we looked at Yellowstone Three years ago, we had no idea this would be the monster he would become. The history of the Duttons has been compelling enough to attract the first Walking Deadsmall audiences, so the idea of a family prequel seemed like a good idea. 1883 is that prequel, and creator Taylor Sheridan’s talent for the cast continues with the ever-watchable Sam Elliott.
1883: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening shot: A voice said, “I remember the first time I saw him. I tried to find words to describe it, but I couldn’t. Then we see the face of a woman; she is lying on the ground with smoke around her. She finally gets up to see that the wagon is on fire and that the Native Americans are attacking the trailer. She shoots one of the attackers but receives an arrow in the stomach for his problem.
The essential: In a tiny house on the Texas plains, a sobbing Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) carries his daughter, recently deceased of smallpox, to her bedroom and puts her next to his wife, who also died of the terrible disease. He then sets fire to his house in order to get rid of this scourge in his life. He is considering suicide when his right arm Thomas (LaMonica Garrett) tells him, “If I dig a hole, I want to do it before the sun rises.”
As they make their way to their Pinkerton office in Fort Worth, they encounter James Dutton (Tim McGraw), who drives a cart while battling bandits. He manages to get them all at once with his shotgun and a long-range rifle; Brennan is impressed with his shooting skills, but he tells Dutton he’s been lucky.
Dutton heads for Fort Worth, “Hell’s Half-Acre”. The place is more or less lawless, as seen when Dutton grabs a pickpocket and a crowd grabs the guy and ties him up. He’s there to meet his family so they can travel north and settle in the largely unexplored frontier.
Brennan and Thomas are in their Pinkerton Security office chatting with a large group of Germans looking to settle in Oregon. No one speaks English, they have too much equipment, cannot ride horses and no guns. Brennan knows they will be killed if they have no protection; even if the group rejects the extra cost, Brennan convinces them to pay and he goes looking for people to ride with them.
He meets Dutton in a saloon and tries to convince him that he and his group could benefit from the extra manpower if he commits to protecting the larger group, but Dutton prefers to be alone.
Dutton’s wife Margaret (Faith Hill) and her family, including eldest daughter Elsa (Isabel May), arrive in town by train. With them, James Claire’s sister (Dawn Olivieri) and her daughter. Elsa wants to drink in every experience, to the point of bumping into her mother for just about everything. But when Dutton barely manages to stop Elsa from being raped by a drunken boss at the brothel downstairs, he realizes that riding with Brennan and helping protect the Germans can help his family get to land in the north where they could settle down.
What shows will this remind you of? Good, Yellowstone on the one hand, since Taylor Sheridan created 1883 as a prequel to his successful series. But he also has a little Dead wood atmosphere, mainly thanks to the presence of Sam Elliott.
Our opinion : We have revised our review of Yellowstone three years ago and I noticed that we said the show was bad and boring, which is certainly what we thought of the first episodes of this show. 1883 do not suffer from the bad part; Sheridan wrote an intelligent pilot with well-written dialogue and excellent performances from Elliott, McGraw, Hill and May. But the first episode was also very complacent and slow-paced, giving viewers plenty of chances to experience scenes that didn’t motivate the story or tell us a lot about the characters.
Yes, we understand; the show is meant to be on the scale of good old-fashioned westerns, with wide shots of the countryside and lingering scenes of people on horseback in stunning settings. But the 66 minute pilot could still have saved ten minutes and we still could have appreciated the scale and scope of the show.
Things get better every time Elliott is on screen, mainly because we feel his deep loss, but also his sense of taking on the challenge of bringing the Germans to Oregon without having them all killed. “Just because they won’t survive doesn’t mean we can’t try,” he told Thomas. He wants this group to have a better life, but knows most of them won’t. This sense of determination and purpose, mixed with the pain we see in Brennan’s eyes, makes him a fascinating character.
McGraw does a good job as Dutton, a man determined to find his piece of the border and settle his family. We were surprised that Hill, who has a few acting credits but we’ve never seen anyone play other than herself before, does a good job as an equally strong Margaret, and not just in the scenes where McGraw and Hill are together – although those scenes show the chemistry of the longtime married couple in real life.
We’re also excited about May, whose Elsa is the one whose voice we hear recounting parts of the episode. The show is mostly seen from her perspective, as she is excited about the possibilities to explore beyond the “edge of civilization,” as the voiceover puts it. As we see in the flash-forward scene, she can more than defend herself and she could end up being the one to really bolster the Dutton presence in Montana.
If Sheridan can pick up the pace in the future, he has a fascinating history on his hands. We have another concern, however; how will he show the role of indigenous peoples in this story? The first flash scene isn’t promising, showing them as the cliché image of bloodthirsty savages instead of people defending their land from invasion and capture by white settlers. In 2021-2022, it is inexcusable to show the story of our push west without addressing the issue that the land our ancestors settled on was not their land to take. Our hope is that Sheridan tackles this issue, and in a way that doesn’t seem like it’s lip service.
Gender and skin: Claire asks women to take their clothes off to examine them for the trip, but that’s it.
Starting shot: The Duttons meet Brennan and the German settlers by a lake; Elsa is floating in the water, and Dutton feels like he’s ready to breathe new life into his family.
Sleeper Star: Oliveri will be a wild card as Claire. She seems to be harder on Margaret’s children than Margaret, but she also might not be helping the family in the long run.
Most of the pilot lines: When Dutton offers her condolences to Claire for her husband, she says, “You can’t believe in Heaven, so be upset when people go there.”
Our call: Stream it. We are concerned about the pace of 1883 and how it portrays Indigenous people, but the story is compelling, and Sam Elliott’s multi-level lead performance is more than enough to interest us.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting, and tech, but he’s not kidding himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
Flux 1883 On Paramount +