Kevin Costner Goes Back to the Well of Westerns in Yellowstone

Also: Castle gets zombified from the television graveyard in the form of Take Two


'Yellowstone,' Paramount Network

Yellowstone. Paramount Network. Wednesday, June 20, 9 p.m.

Take Two. ABC, Thursday, June 21, 10 p.m.

At a moment of crisis in the Paramount Network's new Western Yellowstone, rancher John Dutton's sabre-toothed daughter pleads with him: "Just tell me who to fight." Dutton's snarled reply: "Everyone!"

And there in a nutshell—or maybe a spent .50 caliber cartridge—you have the entire ethos of the fiercely engrossing Yellowstone, a bloody and paranoid parable of anti-modernism.

An updated version of the late-'60s Western family melodrama The Big Valley, or maybe just The Sopranos reimagined as an oat opera, Yellowstone is set in 21st-century Montana.

There John Dutton (Kevin Costner) owns the largest cattle ranch in the United States. And though they may be waving subpoenas and court orders instead of guns—mostly, anyway—the bad guys are circling the fences just like in the old days: A developer dreaming of tract houses. A town looking to add property to its tax rolls. Greedhead greens from a national park. And even Indians, led by a new chieftain flush with casino money that he intends to employ in booting Dutton off old tribal lands.

In some of these clashes, Dutton comes off sympathetically. In others, though, it's plain that he's as willing to war on his neighbors as they are on him, for a purpose no more honorable: to suspend the world around him in a plastic bubble, so that nothing (and nobody) will change.

"It's called 'progress,' John," the developer replies. "And progress doesn't need your permission." Swiftly, battle lines are drawn—and crossed, bloodily.

The aging Dutton's principle allies in this Sisyphean struggle against change are his adult children, at least when he can get them to stop warring on one another.

They include his sleek blonde daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly, True Detective), an attorney who conducts every case like a war and every romance like a genocide. (Her idea of pillow talk: "I always remember your dick as being bigger.")

Two of his sons bear the scars of years of work in a family business that's micromanaged by their warlord father. Jamie (Wes Bentley, American Horror Story) is the ranch's general counsel, perpetually fighting his way through the twilight zone between what his father wants and what's legal; Lee (Dave Annable, Brothers & Sisters) is the long-time foreman who is beginning to realize that he'll never be anything else.

The most enigmatic of the children is the one who's left the family behind—Kayce (Luke Grimes, American Sniper) a military veteran who married into the Indian tribe that's skirmishing with his family. Kayce's unexplained estrangement from his father is already profound and doubtless growing as he's whipsawed by the hostility between his two families.

"He's a reasonable man until he's provoked," Kayce warns the Indians about his father. "Then reason don't factor into it at all."

That seems a fairly accurate picture of John Dutton, perfectly played by Kevin Costner as a wearied and somewhat baffled man who neither comprehends nor accepts that he's rolling down the backside of history.

His confusion is only magnified by the bifurcated Montana in which Yellowstone plays out. (And, incidentally, steals a lot of scenes with its gorgeous mountain terrain.) Culturally and politically, the place seems to be in a tug of war with itself, torn between the flitty New Age arrivistes whose coffee bars are taking over its streets and the homespun old guard to whom watching a wolfpack take down an elk makes for a good first date.

There will be winners and losers in this struggle, and the losers will lose a lot. In one early scene, Dutton soothes a horse lethally injured in a collision with a motor vehicle, raising a gun behind its head with one hand even as he strokes its muzzle with the other. "I know you deserve better," he murmurs to the horse. "The best I can offer you is peace." There doesn't seem to be much of that available in Yellowstone.

If Yellowstone mines the Westerns of the 1960s for its material, ABC's Take Two is dredging from the newer sectors of the TV burial ground. Specifically, it's drawing from 2016, when the network's cop series Castle, in which a crime novelist teamed with a police detective for thrills, chills, and heavy petting, expired during a death spiral of low ratings and unscripted cast drama.

This is not suspected grave-robbing, but more like a case where the culprits were caught with their pockets full of kidneys and spleens. The co-creators of Take Two, Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller, were, respectively, the creator and executive producer of Castle. And Take Two's plot, in which a cop-show actress teams with a private detective for thrills, chills, and heavy petting is, let's say, familiar.

Marlowe and Miller have attempted to disguise the autopsy stitching on their reanimated corpse by casting two highly appealing stars, Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) and Eddie Cibrian (Invasion). And the scenario is cute: Bilson's character got booted off a popular cop show after getting loaded, then breaking into her fiancé's house and setting him on fire. (Top that, Roseanne.)

Now she's though rehab and hoping to land a hot new part as a private detective. She makes a deal to follow around a real private eye (Cibrian) for a few days, and, well, you can guess the rest. Or if you can't, just look up old IMDB summaries of Castle episodes.

The trouble with Take Two is with neither the concept, retread though it may be, or the stars. It's the dreadful scripts. The crime-of-the-week stories are like little video Rubik cubes; with a lot of time and effort, you could figure them out, but why bother?

And the jokes all tend to revolve around genitalia, including a truly startling number of variations on the old Mae West is-that-a-gun-in-your-pocket routine. I'll admit I laughed when when Bilson snapped at Cibrian, "You really put the dick in detective." But by the end of the second episode, I was desperate for Viagra.