3 out of 5

Created by: Taylor Sheridan

covers season 1

Fairly shallow but engaging, 1883’s quality performances and production make this Oregon-trail torture porn Western a fair weekly distraction, even without any care for its connection to Yellowstone as a prequel.

1883 has some surface level knocks against it: possible stunt casting of country music stars and couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as leads; drop-in prestige cameos from the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Hanks; structuring its narrative around the navel-gazing poetry of teen Elsa, played by Isabel May. The former two are very suggestive of a project which might prioritize a fancy look and feel over substance, and the latter just sets us up for a whole lotta eye-rollin’ – that most narcissistic inner voice given the platform to assume that naivety is akin to insight. Thankfully, while the show’s generally high quality production and well-chosen episodic distractions-of-the-week could, indeed, allow it to get away with pretty pictures alone, McGraw and Hill are quite entrancing in their parts, fully sinking into their roles as the family Dutton, behind sweat and grime and believable horse-ridin’ and gun-shootin’ chops; and though their family is essentially the integral POV, they share near equal screentime, overall, with some quite perfect additions to the cast, including Sam Elliott as the Pinkerton leader of the immigrant pack he’s guiding from Texas to Oregon, LaMonica Garrett as his #2 in command, and Marc Rissmann as the foisted-into-command member of the immigrants, chosen solely because he speaks English to complement their German. All of these actors are compelling when on screen, making detours to explore their subplots part of the successful distraction DNA of the series. And as far as Elsa, Isabel May is also part of that equation, finding the right note of restlessness for her character so we cheer for her struggles and accept her teenage rebellions; her voiceovers kicking things off are also surprisingly well-handled, with the writers maintaining awareness that they shouldn’t treat her musings as wistful, instead juxtaposing their simplicity against some of the more “real” Western horrors detailed on the show.

But: all of this is mostly in service of a question that never quite gets answered: Why? Why this show? The answer, probably, is because Yellowstone is popular, and so a spin-off will be as well; also that the demographic for that show might probably like some more romancing of the Wild West. And though creator Taylor Sheridan doesn’t leave racism and sexism untouched, it’d just dusted into the series, some occasional speeches here and there to make us feel like it’s addressed. The tribulations of the travels feel researched, but it’s also of a similar pedigree: just enough grit is put into things so we nod at the knowledge that olden times be hard, but the show also feels “safe” to a certain degree, with its dangers well packaged to function as comfort viewing. I mean, I called it tragedy porn above, because that’s the overwhelming vibe, reveling in some gorgeous scenery and then throwing down a storm or bandits which wreck/s everything and kills as many extras as possible.

Otherwise, the Why is never answered. Carried on its good performances, the script is often masterful bullshit, with the kind of open-ended, conflicting statements about mankind that sound meaningful but don’t actually advance the conversation any, and then extend that to the premise itself: at the outset, we’re told that old timey America wasn’t a pleasant place, and then every episode is an example of that thereafter, without any real character growth necessary to get us from episode 1 to 10. Sheridan and his chosen directors are excellent show-people, though, and the reason I applied ‘masterful’ to that adjective: the show weaves a pretty effective spell.

As far as the Hanks cameo, though – that’s pure window dressing.