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‘Yellowstone,’ ‘1883’ and more from creative force Taylor Sheridan

Anyone who thought “1883” was going to have a happy ending wasn’t paying attention.

Tim McGraw as James Dutton in “1883.”
Tim McGraw as James Dutton in 1883

Let’s back up. “1883” is a prequel series to the smash hit “Yellowstone” that wrapped its first season last month. Make that it’s only season: The story has been put to bed, although not necessarily for a good night’s sleep, after getting its main characters where they needed to go. In that sense, mission accomplished, but nothing else about it can be considered happy.

Let’s back up even more: Why does “Yellowstone” need a prequel series? That’s because the show is a last of its kind, a cable series that pulls exceptionally large viewership, and it keeps getting bigger. The Western series — it’s like “Succession” by way of “Dallas,” with Kevin Costner in the Logan Roy/ J.R. Ewing role — nabbed 10.3 million viewers for its recent fourth season finale, up a whopping 81% over its Season 3 closer. That made it the most-watched cable program since “The Walking Dead’s” third season premiere in October 2017, not to mention more popular than last year’s Academy Awards telecast.

If you’re the Paramount Network (and the rest of your programming consists of “Bar Rescue” and “NCIS” reruns), you capitalize on that. And that means expanding “Yellowstone” even further, and handing over the keys to the kingdom to “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan, the modern king of the American frontier.

Sheridan is the actor turned writer turned creative force whose Sheridanverse is only growing more powerful. The 51-year-old Texas native made his acting debut, fittingly, in an episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger” in 1995, and eventually landed recurring parts on “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

In 2015 his screenplay for the hard-boiled cop tale “Sicario” made him a hot pen in Hollywood, and he followed it up with “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River,” the latter of which he also directed. These modern Westerns are tough and gritty, stories that have been kicked through the dirt about people who have also been kicked through the dirt, and are several steps removed from the high-gloss churn of Hollywood.

In 2018 he launched “Yellowstone,” which started slow but continues to catch on with viewers, after exploding in popularity when people discovered its soapy pleasures during the pandemic. Now its world has ballooned to include several spinoffs, including the forthcoming “6666,” as well as the just-wrapped “1883.”

“1883” dialed the story of “Yellowstone’s” Dutton clan back several generations, to show how the family came to settle in Montana. The series was bleak from the outset: It begins with a bloody battle where Elsa Dutton (Isabel May), who narrates the series, is wounded by a group of Native Americans, and shows Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) burning down the home where both his wife and daughter have just died after a smallpox infection.

That pall hangs over the entire series, and it immediately established that no one is safe in a land where everyone and everything is trying to kill you at all times. Its only-the-strong-survive theme carries over from “Yellowstone.”

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill lead the cast as James and Margaret Dutton, the eventual great-grandparents to Costner’s “Yellowstone” character, John Dutton. It’s a tough, hard-fought series, and also a neatly contained narrative that exists on its own apart from “Yellowstone.” It drew some pretty big names, as well — Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson and Billy Bob Thornton all showed up in cameo roles — showing Sheridan’s flourishing clout as a showrunner.

1883” wrapped last month and won’t return for a second season. Instead, Sheridan will pick up the story of the Duttons with the forthcoming “1932,” which will take place, appropriately enough, during the Great Depression.

And Sheridan has several other irons in the fire: in addition to “Mayor of Kingstown,” his modern series about the prison-industrial complex which was recently renewed for a second season, he has “Bass Reeves,” starring David Oyelowo, the story of the real-life 1800s law enforcement officer; the Sly Stallone-starring “Tulsa King,” about a just-out-of-prison gangster who is forced to start over; the espionage series “Lioness,” starring Zoe Saldana; and “Land Man,” about the 1800s oil boom in West Texas. All are in the early stages of development.

That’s a lot to juggle — in addition to “Yellowstone,” which is due to return for its fifth season — but Sheridan shows no signs of burning out. He’s created his own lane of programming for an audience that was being otherwise underserved. Just don’t expect him to rely on happy endings.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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