In the last two years, Paramount+ has released 13 drama series, six of which have stemmed from “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan. Some are directly tied to the hit cable (and now broadcast) series, like the timestamped prequels “1883” and “1923,” while others merely bear the prolific writer and producer’s name (“Mayor of Kingstown,” “Tulsa King,” and “Special Ops: Lioness”). All have been considered successful by the nascent streamer (if less so by the culture at large), and thus the Taylor Sheridan Television Universe continues expanding.
Its latest, “Lawmen: Bass Reeves,” is actually built from both sides of the Dutton family’s ever-expanding fence — or it was, at least. While always about the first Black U.S. Marshall west of the Mississippi River, the seasonal anthology series was originally tied to “1883” before redevelopments set its story apart and Sheridan, who was once attached to direct, ended up solely an executive producer. Through four of the 10 episodes, I can’t say it really matters if “Bass Reeves” was directly linked to Kevin Costner’s TV family or not. Perhaps waiting around for a Tim McGraw cameo would make a difference for “Yellowstone” completists, but “Bass Reeves” is far too formulaic, too rushed, and too incurious to be propped up MCU-style by cameos.
Determined viewers do face a slight dilemma: You could skip the hourlong premiere episode and read the “early career” section of Reeves’ Wikipedia page, or you could slog through the uninspired, point-by-point recitation and be rewarded with Shea Whigham quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson on the battlefield. As a compromise, may I suggest checking out the first five minutes and skipping the remaining 52 — you’ll hear Whigham’s paraphrased poetry reading, yet won’t have to endure the increasingly predictable events that follow. Created by Chad Feehan (“Ray Donovan”) with a pilot directed by “Yellowstone” veteran Chistina Alexandra Voros, “Bass Reeves” picks up mid-combat, after Reeves (Oyelowo) has been dragged into the Civil War — and forced to fight for the Confederacy — by Colonel George R. Reeves (Whigham). Bass is not a soldier; he’s enslaved and acting at the behest of the Colonel, though you’d be hard-pressed to explain the difference once his skills with a rifle prove instrumental to both men surviving an ambush or two.
Despite the historical lack of clarity over how Bass secures his freedom, “Lawmen” sticks to the internet’s summation of events, providing even less context or motivating factors than any thoughtful reader could speculate on their own. Bass’ internal drive, his motivations, are kept as broad as possible. He leaves because he’s fed up and fears for his safety. He goes where he feels safe and he’s needed (a rural farm in Indigenous territory). He adapts quickly, as the series jumps ahead months (and sometimes years) after each commercial break. (“Commercial break?” you may ask. “Isn’t this a streaming series?” Yes, it is! But streaming has ads now, and “Bass Reeves” could follow in “Yellowstone’s” footsteps and end up airing on CBS, should the powers that be want to continue their synergistic release strategies.)
It takes two full hours for “Bass Reeves” to reach what should’ve been its starting point: when Bass is sworn in as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. By then, knowing there are only 10 total episodes to this tale, it’s too late. “Bass Reeves” trots through a couple of perfunctory investigations, collaring a couple of criminals, and surviving a few dust-ups. Along the way, he picks up random partners (including Garrett Hedlund, who I can only assume is playing the great, great grandfather of his “Tulsa King” character), but the only parts that stick are thematic (and even those aren’t as striking as Oyelowo, always a committed, immersed performer).
Built as a revisionist western (that still savors its shootouts), “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” sees its titular star dwelling on what it means to be both a lawman and a Christian. Most of his difficulties center on how his duties conflict with his pacifism, as he has no taste for killing, though Bass also notices ways the supposedly impartial law partially tips the scales of justice. A Black man who steals out of necessity is given the same sentence as white cowboys who act out of greed. A doctor trying to decide which wounded patient to prioritize asks Bass, “Who got plucked? Law or outlaw?” “They both die about the same,” Bass replies. When an atheist cowboy (Dennis Quaid, who chews nearly as much tobacco as scenery) mocks Bass for believing in a God that allows men to suffer in slavery, Bass merely says that his faith “gave me the hope to believe” he could someday be free. Later, he swears to enact God’s will through the justice system, claiming, “Until God say [sic] otherwise, I’m the only law they [sic] is.”
Donald Sutherland plays Judge Isaac Parker, who Wiki informs me will come to see Bass as a “valued deputy.” The seeds of their relationship are planted in Episode 3, but “Lawmen” doesn’t take the time to engage in any debate between an old school adjudicator and a newly hired officer. It just bookends the hour with an unremarked upon disagreement, trusting the audience to take away whatever they want. “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” isn’t interested in the nuanced internal conflicts that must have roiled inside a former slave who chose to protect and serve slave owners, a Black man forced to fight for the Confederate army, or even a pacifist who picked up a gun every single day — at least, it’s not interested enough, soon enough. It solemnly nods at such issues as they walk by, but it does not stop to engage with them.
Instead, it tells yet another tale of a farmer who’s sworn off killing, yet kills again anyway; a husband who loves his wife (Lauren E. Banks) more than anything, yet risks losing her whenever the cowboys come callin’; a father who’s proud of his kids (his eldest is played by Demi Singleton), but who’s rarely around to see them do much of anything. Toss in a few shameless deaths to motivate Bass, and you’ll soon feel like you’ve seen this dark and dour story before. That may be the point. Given how quickly the Sheridan-verse is expanding, it needs easy stories, and fast. But Bass Reeves, no matter who he really was, deserves a more inquisitive case study than this.
“Lawmen: Bass Reeves” premieres Sunday, November 5 on Paramount+ with two episodes. New episodes will be released weekly.
– Armessa Movie News