The American state of Montana is big. Properly big. So big that we Brits can’t quite grasp how very big it is. The setting for Paramount ranch drama Yellowstone bleeds outside the page gutters of the UK mind. The US state is so many times bigger than a double decker bus or Wales that it needs a totally different scale. To really appreciate its size would require a lengthy explanation video by Professor Brian Cox involving a Rowntree’s Fruit Pastille, a snooker ball, and The O2.
Montana isn’t just big, but compared to the UK, it’s also empty. The average Brummie will inhale the recycled breath of more people in a single trip to Greggs than a Montanan will in their whole life. That place is one and half times larger than the United Kingdom but contains 66.1 million fewer people and almost three times the number of cows. Imagine a land 1,000 times bigger than the Isle of Wight, populated by almost entirely by cattle and the sons and enemies of Kevin Costner.
We don’t have to imagine it. Brits can watch Kevin Costner’s sons, enemies and cattle in hugely popular drama Yellowstone, season four of which starts streaming on Paramount + UK from August 17th.
Yellowstone is the story of rancher John Dutton III (Costner), his dysfunctional family, and their battles to protect their land from modern encroachments and the people who try to take it. Any UK newcomers jumping on at this stage should prepare for a culture shock, because Yellowstone really has no British equivalent. Over here, we don’t have the space, the guns or the roads big enough to accommodate the all-terrain trucks of Yellowstone. As the majority of our colonial violence was committed overseas, neither do we really have the side-by-side racial tensions of the show’s ranchers vs Indigenous American tribes.
UK property developers also work on a different scale, flipping mid-terraces and dividing flats into more, smaller flats instead of planning to raise entirely new cities from the ground. To translate it to British terms, picture a TV drama in which our biggest private landowners – the Queen and Prince Charles – were forced to use guns and helicopters to violently defend themselves from Celt separatists and Sarah Beeny.
Is there a John Dutton equivalent on British television? Let’s toss around some options: First, Downton Abbey’s Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham. Both are custodians of inherited estates they’ve sworn to protect, with a question mark over their potential successors. Robert Crawley though, is more likely to be found judging a blancmange contest at the village fete than defending his compound from raiders, and to our knowledge, has yet to use a hot poker to brand the family crest onto any of his children.
If we’re talking TV livestock agents, ours tend to be more from the world of James Herriot than John Dutton. Yes, both men would be found at a cattle auction, but Herriot would likely follow it up by eating too many buns at a lavish farmhouse tea rather than fighting a gun-based territory war.
Tommy Shelby of Peaky Blinders could make for a closer comparison. He also rides horses, and also shoots them in the head when the occasion calls for it. Tommy has the money, criminality, power and nous of the Yellowstone patriarch, as well as a similarly troublesome family/empire. Ultimately though, Tommy’s socialist political career and anti-fascist activism in later series distance him from Dutton’s conservative appeal.
Finally, there’s Pop Larkin in The Darling Buds of May, but despite both men driving monogrammed vehicles, heading up expansive clans, battling the world using often less-than-legal means, they don’t really compare. Audiences first met John Dutton covered in blood and killing a horse; we first met Pop Larkin buying a big freezer for his strawberries.
It’s not just a character like John Dutton we lack on British TV, nor is it just the alien size of Yellowstone’s home state; Westerns in general are a world apart for us. In Britain, cowboys are people caught by Dom Littlewood on hidden camera installing faulty boilers. We don’t have mustangs roaming the wilds (there are ponies in the New Forest but you’d definitely get into trouble if you tried to lasso one). In the UK, no one family could own a farm bigger than Rhode Island. The Windsors might come close, but compared to Yellowstone’s ranchers, they’re land-owning amateurs.
A major difference is that UK drama tends to struggle to take things quite as seriously as Yellowstone does. See the US-produced but largely UK-written and comedy-slanted Succession -perhaps Yellowstone‘s closest comparison in overarching plot – for an illustration. If the Dutton family were British, they wouldn’t communicate with cool lines like “When you say no, it must be the death of the question.” They’d say “mustn’t grumble” and “nice weather for ducks!”. As a result, they’d lack the ability to intimidate when going up against billionaire antagonists.
Despite all the differences, there is obviously some overlap. Energy companies are also the baddies over here. And like the characters in Yellowstone, the British respect our veterans, and demonstrate this by ensuring that the Cookie Monster wears a remembrance poppy whenever he appears on The One Show. Oil drilling controversies are also absolutely a thing here too, though a distant one for most of us.
Of course, Yellowstone is a distant world to many Americans as well, which is all part of the appeal. Though set in the modern day, there’s an old-fashioned Wild West lawlessness to how the Dutton family operates, outside of the law and outside of West and East coast norms. In the very first episode, a character declares “This isn’t California, gentlemen, this is Montana, we can do whatever we want.” John Dutton’s status and macho impunity are as much of a draw as his vast ranch, mansion and fleet of trucks. John’s ways are the old ways, and they’re alien to more than just us Brits.
Episodes 1 – 3 of Yellowstone Season 4 starts on Paramount Plus UK on August 17th.