How Yellowstone became America’s biggest TV hit
Yellowstone is a TV juggernaut in North America, and is slowly gaining a foothold in the rest of the world
The fifth season of the Kevin Costner-starring western launches on Paramount+ on 14 November
The show, which attracts millions of viewers, has already spawned three spin-offs
We take a look at the show's rise to the top
Come the early summer of 2018, and you could be forgiven for thinking that two significant screen careers had passed their peak.
Kevin Costner’s, for one. Once the biggest movie star in the world and commander of eight figure salaries (without a decimal point), he now seemed an actor far more suited to supporting roles.
His last big screen lead at that time, in the film Criminal, had hardly set the world alight. Terrific lower billed turns in the likes of Hidden Figures and Molly’s Game appeared a better fit.
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Writer/director Taylor Sheridan meanwhile had become frustrated with movies. He too had enjoyed success, picking up an Academy Award nomination for the film Hell Or High Water. Yet his next — Wind River — ended up inadvertedly entwined in the fall of the Harvey Weinstein empire, and failed to get the success it deserved.
Both needed a new plan. Sheridan had been toying with a new direction for a while, first pitching his idea for a show all the way back in 2013. Costner too had already appeared on the small screen — when it was less in vogue for movie stars to do so — in the acclaimed miniseries Hatfield & McCoys.
The pair though agreed to come together for the first time for Yellowstone, an off-the-beaten track TV show not unreasonably billed as a modern day western. One that has the Dutton family at its heart, as they struggle to keep the biggest ranch in their state going.
Watch: Take a closer look at Yellowstone S5
Easier said than done, given the pressures of the neighbouring reservation, the politics of the area, and the fact that the Dutton family is a bit, well, ‘difficult’.
(Top tip: if they ask you for Christmas dinner, might be an idea to pick a plan B.)
It took a while for the show to get greenlit, but Costner agreed to take the lead as the show finally got the backing of the Paramount Network. It then debuted on 20 June, 2018, and the early signs were... well... that was that.
Reviews were middling, the ratings were okay. Then there was the fact that the show wasn’t dropping all of its episodes in one go, that it was set in an apparently moribund genre, and that wasn’t setting social media alight either.
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The Paramount Network though figured it might have something here. Within a few weeks, a second season had been ordered. The wider world might not have realised, but Paramount had a success on its hands. Nobody’s doubting that now either: within a couple of years, it was being billed as the most successful show in America.
At the point we are now, with season five premiering, it’s becoming something even more than that.
If one article could pinpoint the secret of its success, then the word rate for this piece would be far dearer than it is. But still, there are clearly contributory factors.
For one thing, Yellowstone is a very American story. In an era where shows are being put together to try and gather universal appeal, that doesn’t feel the case here. The show has travelled around the world, but it’s been a side effect as much as the core thrust of it.
Its politics too have been readily discussed, and feel like they’re going against the grain. There’s a school of thought — one that Sheridan actively counters — that the show is a kind of right-wing version of another modern day TV juggernaut, Succession. Certainly the shows have overlap — a patriarch in their senior years, eyeing someone to take over the family business — but in truth, they’re different beasts.
Perhaps there’s something more fundamental here though. Perhaps, y’know, it’s just good? It’s compelling enough to want to come back to every week. It has ups and downs, but Yellowstone has never been less than consistently entertaining, with one hell of an ensemble cast (of whom Kelly Reilly — from Britain — is the clear breakout), who happen to be on terrific form. There’s space for the leads, there’s space for the character actors. And the whole thing — soaking in a landscape not often seen on TV — is beautiful to look at.
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The episodes penned by Sheridan — and there are a lot of them — feel like the show at its strongest. There are moments where it goes a bit soap opera-y amongst the family battles, the murders, the livestock and the fine collection of hats. But second guess it at your peril: you’re never far away from one Dutton finding a way to do damage to another.
The debut of season five now finds Yellowstone as not just one of American’s premier drama shows, but as one of the country’s strongest television franchises full stop.
Yep, there’s a universe of shows here. The first spin-off, 1883, landed at the end of 2021, with Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford taking the leads in the upcoming 1923. A further, present-day spin-off is arriving in 2023 as well. Not for nothing was Paramount at one stage even considering a Yellowstone-specific TV channel.
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It opted against that, but no matter. Sheridan — who stays at the controls of the franchise — isn’t losing sleep over that. Instead, he’s busy writing, producing and directing. And his leading man? Costner has taken the success of Yellowstone — and season five alone is set to earn him nearly $20m — and gone back onto a movie set. He’s gone a bit James Cameron, and is making several new western films under the name of Horizon.
And who knows? Sheridan and Costner may yet be tempted to take the Duttons to the movies too.
Stranger things have happened…
Yellowstone S1-4 are streaming on Paramount+. S5 of Yellowstone launches on Paramount+ with two episodes on 14 November, with new episodes weekly.