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Taylor Sheridan Made TV His Ranch, and We’re All Just Grazing on It

The journeyman actor turned showrunner has built a television empire on his “campy” and “melodramatic” smash hit, ‘Yellowstone.’ Why do we love his shows so much?

Paramount Network/Paramount Plus/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here is an unbelievable fact: 1883 is, technically, Taylor Sheridan’s first-ever Western—at least in the non-contemporary, non-revisionist sense of the term. The Yellowstone prequel, a limited series now streaming on Paramount+, is a straightforward tale of settlers on the American frontier and the dangers that await them, starring a pair of enduring icons: Sam Elliott and his mustache. (I kid; Elliott’s actual colead is country star Tim McGraw as James Dutton, eventual ancestor of Kevin Costner’s John.) The slow creep of modernity, Yellowstone’s primary theme and antagonist, doesn’t have to be dealt with. Nor are there other genres to form a hybrid, in the vein of Sheridan’s prior work. Yellowstone is a Western soap; Hell or High Water is a Western crime yarn; Wind River is a detective mystery set in the West, while Sicario is a pulpy thriller set on the border between Texas and Mexico.

Here is an entirely believable fact: 1883 had, according to Paramount+, the service’s most-watched series premiere ever, more than doubling the previous record. While that boast is as abstract as we’ve come to expect from the streaming version of ratings, it also comes with some hard numbers. Because ViacomCBS aired the premiere on the Paramount Network, the basic cable channel that also hosts Yellowstone, we have access to more traditional data—namely the 4.9 million viewers who tuned in live on December 19, a figure that swells to 6.4 million when accounting for simulcasts and encore showings later that same night. Those aren’t quite Yellowstone numbers, but almost nothing is.

Much like Squid Game, the success of Yellowstone is so staggering, so anomalous when held up against entertainment’s status quo, that it’s become a story in itself, somewhat divorced from the show at its center. That story is familiar enough in its broad strokes: A populist, meat-and-potatoes show becomes a massive hit despite, or perhaps in part because of, the indifference of critics and the media writ large. But unlike, say, The Big Bang Theory, Yellowstone comes with its own streaming-era twist. The show premiered in 2018 as part of the opening slate of the Paramount Network, a prestige-minded rebrand of Spike TV that also bankrolled the David Koresh miniseries Waco and a troubled reboot of Heathers. Just three years later, that effort has largely fizzled out, with one massive exception. As ViacomCBS has pivoted to streaming, Yellowstone is now the only scripted original that airs on its network, even as back seasons are available not on the ViacomCBS-owned Paramount+ but on NBCUniversal’s Peacock. It’s a very 2021 kind of mess, but it hasn’t stopped the live broadcast from earning 12 million viewers a night.

In Yellowstone’s fourth season, which began airing last month, the “ignored by critics” part of its winning formula no longer holds true. There are now a slew of essays and explainers dissecting the show’s appeal for coastal elites who may have missed the sleeper hit in favor of Succession, whose parallels to Yellowstone (both follow wealthy families with menacing fathers and insecure children) are practically a running joke; this very website runs multiple sets of weekly recaps, both written and aural. Such increased awareness reflects the widening of Yellowstone’s footprint, as well as that of its cocreator and driving force.

For both Taylor Sheridan and the Yellowstone universe, 1883 is just the beginning. A second spinoff, 6666, will center on a real-life ranch in Texas, while Mayor of Kingstown, another Sheridan cocreation, debuted earlier this fall on Paramount+. (An ensemble show about a Michigan town bound up in mass incarceration, Kingstown has no narrative overlap with Yellowstone.) Sheridan has also teamed with Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter for Kansas City, a starring vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, and is producing Land Man, an adaptation of a narrative podcast about the West Texas oil industry. Like Kingstown and 1883, both series will air on Paramount+, part of Sheridan’s lucrative overall deal with ViacomCBS. He’s even dipped his toe into unscripted programming, producing a docuseries called The Last Cowboy that’s set to move from the depleted Paramount Network to CMT.

It’s an impressive portfolio for any showrunner, let alone someone who didn’t start writing screenplays until they were 40 years old. Sheridan is one of those Hollywood types whose life story feels like movie material in its own right. After growing up on a ranch and flunking out of Texas State University, a Hollywood talent scout spotted Sheridan in Austin, leading to two decades of work as a journeyman actor in LA. (His Fairfax-area fourplex was once also home to Michael Mann.) While renegotiating his contract for Sons of Anarchy, Sheridan had an epiphany: He didn’t want to raise his newborn son in a cramped apartment on an unsteady income. So he quit acting, maxed out his wife’s credit card on a copy of Final Draft, and got to work on Sicario, his first-ever script.

For a while, features were Sheridan’s bread and butter. His sophomore effort, Hell or High Water—the story of two brothers who rob banks in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, written in just three weeks—earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Sicario became the rare original concept successful enough to earn a sequel, which Sheridan also wrote. In 2017, he broke into Hollywood directing with Wind River, starring Jeremy Renner as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who gets caught up in the search for a missing Native woman against the backdrop of a brutal Wyoming winter.

But like for many auteurs before him, the siren song of TV proved too compelling to resist. The blockbuster success of Yellowstone would then form the foundation of a TV empire in the making—not at the same scale as, and radically different in content from, the Shonda Rhimeses and Ryan Murphys of the world, but certainly on the same spectrum. While Sheridan has continued to write and direct feature films, his track record has been slightly less consistent, especially amid the pandemic and all its uncertainty. The Sheridan-directed, Angelina Jolie–headlined Those Who Wish Me Dead, which had a day-and-date release on HBO Max, earned just $23 million at the box office; Without Remorse, the Paramount-produced Tom Clancy adaptation cowritten by Sheridan, was intended to play in theaters, only for the film to be sold to Prime Video for a streaming-only release.

Across both film and TV, the typical Sheridan property has a remarkably consistent outline: firm genre roots, operatic violence, and a pointed focus on America’s interior. (There are also consistent players: Renner, Jon Bernthal, and Aiden Gillen have all appeared in multiple Sheridan projects.) The latter also forms the basis of Sheridan’s own persona as advanced in profiles and interviews. He owns not one but two ranches in Texas—not including the historic Four Sixes, which he helped purchase as the public face of an ownership group that acquired the property in a landmark $350 million deal earlier this year—and lends his own horses to the production of Yellowstone. When he returned to L.A. to promote Hell or High Water for awards season, he drove 10 hours from Wyoming in a two-toned truck; these days, he’s as likely to grant an interview to Cowboys & Indians as The New York Times.

Sheridan may be semiretired from acting, apart from occasional cameos on Yellowstone, but he’s as effective an ambassador for his work as any star-creator, a la Tina Fey or Issa Rae. He also enjoys a similar level of creative control: Sheridan wrote and directed every episode of Yellowstone’s first season, only sharing a story credit with cocreator John Linson for the first two episodes. After outsourcing a good chunk of Season 2, he then wrote all of Seasons 3 and 4, eschewing the writers’ rooms favored by most of scripted TV—a Herculean feat but in line with a show about cowboys who value self-reliance. The setup is all the more impressive for how Sheridan has maintained it even while increasing his output, penning the scripts for both 1883 and Mayor of Kingstown. (As with Yellowstone, Sheridan shares story credit for the Mayor of Kingstown pilot with his cocreator, actor Hugh Dillon.)

There’s another current that runs through Sheridan’s work, even as it expands to cover new territory. Mayor of Kingstown trades the wide-open vistas of Montana for the hollowed-out ruins of the postindustrial Rust Belt, a change of scenery that has a marked effect on the show’s tone; by keeping the brutality while stripping away the palpable love for its setting, it’s more nihilistic than Yellowstone by far. (By contrast, the narrator of 1883 may declare the West to be “hell,” but she’s also frolicking in a river by the end of the premiere.) Still, it retains a key attribute of the Sheridan show: an adjacency to hot-button political issues that never quite coalesces into a political stance, a calling card that may also be the key to the writer-director’s success.

“I can’t stand to pay money or give time to a thing that tells me how to think, even if I agree with it,” Sheridan recently told the Times. Despite dealing with themes as fraught as the prison-industrial complex, Native land rights, and manifest destiny, Sheridan’s stories are insistently agnostic, preferring to focus on the explosion rather than the fuse. It’s easy to read a latent conservatism into Yellowstone’s tale of a white, wealthy man defending his generational wealth from effete Californians, and many have; the same goes for how the titular role in Mayor of Kingstown seems to largely consist of organizing extrajudicial killings, many involving police brutality. But Paramount+ isn’t GAC Family, the network founded because Hallmark holiday movies aren’t Christian enough. And Sheridan isn’t the type to wear his ideology on his sleeve, whatever that ideology may be.

When discussing Yellowstone, Sheridan freely uses terms like “campy” and “melodramatic,” terms that come closer to summarizing its appeal than “red state” or “real America.” It’s a show that uses controversial subjects to add heft to its conflict, but it also gives itself license to ignore them or contradict itself—an MO that’s since been exported. Mayor of Kingstown includes earnest speeches from Dianne Wiest on the lasting pain of colonialism and kills a sex worker in the pilot to advance the plot; 1883 tries to deepen our understanding of the old West and opens with nameless Native Americans attacking a white protagonist. To detangle all the strands is to miss the maximalist fun, salted with portentous bon mots like “The enemy of my enemy isn’t my friend. He’s just another fucker I gotta worry about.” (Put that on a bumper sticker!) Whatever’s in the Sheridan secret sauce, it’s fantastically effective. TV is Sheridan’s ranch now; we’re all just grazing on it.