The Big Picture
- David Oyelowo delivers a phenomenal performance in Lawmen: Bass Reeves, capturing the character’s range of emotions and vulnerability.
- The show boasts a talented cast of A-listers, including Dennis Quaid and Donald Sutherland, but some characters are only briefly showcased.
- The episodic structure of the series sometimes reduces the focus on important relationships, like Bass’s commitment to his wife Jennie.
There are some roles that seem inextricable from the actors who have played them — as if, once that person has stepped into the shoes of that particular character, it would be difficult to picture anyone else achieving the same impact. That sentiment is the best way of capturing the feeling of watching Paramount+’s Lawmen: Bass Reeves, which hails from creator Chad Feehan. While other big names have brought the legendary figure to life in both film and television alike, likely none have been given the space to dig into the titular character the way that David Oyelowo is — and the result is a performance that proves impossible to look away from.
The series’ narrative follows Reeves at several pivotal moments in his life, from his punishing beginnings in slavery all the way to the occupation that turned him into an icon, serving as the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. In the midst of wrangling some of the most dangerous fugitives of the age — according to historical records, Reeves had a well-known reputation for being both an expert marksman and a shrewd investigator — he also seeks to provide for his family, with his loyal wife Jennie (Lauren E. Banks) holding things down on the homestead while Bass is off on assignment.
While Lawmen: Bass Reeves was initially billed as an anthology — and nothing within the first five episodes provided for review would indicate otherwise — the knowledge that our time with this series is somewhat limited is a sobering one. In fact, the biggest drawback surrounding a show like this one is that it would be beneficial to spend even more time with the characters and within the story. Instead, there are moments when it feels as though the series has only just settled into the overarching plot and allowed us to become more invested before the narrative jumps ahead, propelling both its lead and the audience into new, less certain circumstances.
Lawmen: Bass Reeves
- Release Date
- November 5, 2023
- David Oyelowo, Dennis Quaid, Joaquina Kalukango, Justin Hurtt-Dunkley
- Main Genre
- Drama, Western, Biography
- Chad Feehan
David Oyelowo Is Phenomenal in ‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’
Ultimately, a show that bears a single character’s name is going to come with certain expectations — but for Oyelowo, who has tackled more than one role rooted in history before and received well-deserved accolades as a result, Bass Reeves feels like a unique opportunity. The series begins with Bass still indebted as a slave to Colonel George Reeves (Shea Whigham), with the character positioned as someone who won’t fully realize his own potential until he breaks free of his circumstances. Oyelowo’s performance in the show’s initial hour is self-effacing, compliant, and when offered the chance to be set free from his existence as an enslaved man, hopefully vulnerable. The range of emotions that filter across his face in a pivotal moment early in the series captures this to heartwrenching effect, which is soon followed by dismay when Bass realizes that he’s been tricked, that the cards have quite literally been stacked against him.
Fast-forward to years later, Bass is attempting to make a modest living for himself and his family through farming, and opportunity actually comes knocking in a way that could benefit their future. Deputy U.S. Marshal Sherrill Lynn (Dennis Quaid) has a job offer for Bass which proves too good to turn down, even though the commitments of the occupation are going to keep him largely on the road and away from his family. There’s also the reality that apprehending criminals — history puts Reeves’ record at somewhere around 3,000 individuals — is a dangerous business, and one that often invites some less-than-honorable means of securing an arrest. Yet Bass attempts to maintain a piece of his morals, even if his professional partners aren’t as concerned with upholding the law from a fully just standpoint, and these clashes of conscience prove to be some of the series’ most compelling moments.
‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ Boasts a Cast of Big Names, But Only to a Point
Given Lawmen: Bass Reeves‘ aforementioned anthology format and the episode count — thankfully, bumped up to eight from the initially confirmed six — there’s only so much time we’re given with some of the most impressive members of the cast. Oyelowo himself is a strong anchor for the series, and Bass Reeves wouldn’t work half as well as it does without his presence over everything else. That said, some characters effectively make their mark even though they may only just be passing through in terms of the overall season. Quaid’s Marshal Sherrill Lynn briefly turns the tenor of the show into more of a buddy-cop Western when the plot revolves more around both his recruitment of Bass and the reluctant partnership that results. In fact, it’s easy to see how several more episodes could have been made out of their dynamic without the story weakening. But since this is Bass’s journey first and foremost, Lynn is only afforded a brief tenure in the spotlight before shuffling off-stage.
Donald Sutherland serves a similar position in the overall narrative of Bass Reeves, but perhaps it comes as no surprise that the illustrious actor knows how to make the absolute most out of a limited amount of screen time. His performance as Judge Isaac Parker, the man responsible for swearing Bass in to become an official U.S. Marshal, both affords the moment the gravitas it deserves and seems implemented to give Bass some forced perspective about what his new role entails — as well as the fact that, in many cases, the law can be a particularly harsh mistress indeed.
‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ Isn’t Always Served by Its Pacing
Ultimately, the place where Lawmen: Bass Reeves is a little let down is through its smaller episodic structure. Eight episodes might seem like a generous order in the age of streaming television, but given all the hallmarks of Bass’s life that the series has to tackle, some elements feel like they could be given even more time to play out. The relationship that should be afforded the most weight and significance, Bass’s steadfast commitment to his wife Jennie, often suffers the most when the series is forced to split them up for plot-demanded reasons. Understandably, the job of a lawman is a grueling one as depicted in this series’ time period, but given that Oyelowo and Banks each make up one-half of this abiding romance, their intermittent scenes both underserve the characters’ relationship and the actors’ natural chemistry.
Instead, Banks is given more acting opportunities opposite oldest Reeves daughter Sally, played by Demi Singleton (King Richard), and when the two characters often wonder out loud about Bass’s safety and fate, it almost feels like the show is unintentionally reminding us of the strong family unit scenes we’re missing out on with Oyelowo so often split up from the rest of these particular cast members. With the peril and sleepless nights that so often surround Reeves’ law enforcement pursuits, the inclusion of more scenes that emphasize his safe berth at home would have benefited the series — and humanized this legendary figure beyond what we’ve already seen in previous portrayals on-screen.
When it was officially confirmed that Lawmen: Bass Reeves would not be considered a part of Taylor Sheridan‘s Yellowstone universe, it was unclear whether that would be a boon or a disadvantage. In hindsight, letting Lawmen: Bass Reeves be its own story was the best decision that could have been made. Not only does the series benefit from existing in isolation, without the prospect of its characters being drawn into Dutton family drama, but its leading man is afforded the freedom to offer a complex, evolving performance that adds even more dimension to one of America’s most legendary figures. If only we were given even more time to watch him do it.
Lawmen: Bass Reeves premieres with its first two episodes November 5 on Paramount+ in the U.S.
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