Thursday, April 7, 2022


 The Paramount+ series 1883 is the story of how the Dutton family came to found the ranch that is the cornerstone of the popular series Yellowstone. 1883 does a good job of showing why the Duttons have such love and devotion for the land. How the show does it leaves a lot to be desired.


The set-up has the Duttons (Confederate veteran James, wife Margaret, daughter Elsa, and son John) hooking up with a party of German immigrants on their way from Fort Worth to Oregon under the direction of Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott). Mishaps and drama ensue.


The first few episodes of 1883 are grabbers. Unfortunately, the show can’t maintain that pace and each successive episode loses a little in both quality and interest until by the end we were talking back to the screen as though filming an episode of Mystery Western Theater 1883. We stuck with it more from a sense of duty to see how things came out than for entertainment.


Writer Taylor Sheridan makes his points through the eyes of Elsa (Isabel May), through frequent, and often tedious, voice-overs. Emily Dickenson had nothing on this seventeen-year-old in the areas of eloquence, profundity, and melancholy. (More on Elsa’s age later.) The voice-overs are textbook examples of why the technique has fallen into ill-repute. They’re telling instead of showing, and oh my god are they preachy.


That doesn’t make Elsa special. Characters will stop whatever they’re doing to utter profundities at the drop of a hat. While much of the acting is quite good (Sam Elliott is always solid, and Tim McGraw as James Dutton is surprisingly so) they too often give recitations rather than explore character.


Plotting and pacing are problems. Sheridan earned great acclaim for the screenplays Hell or High Water, Wind River, and Sicario. He appears to function better when he needs to wrap things up in two hours. Given ten episodes to work with, the pacing is often too slow, while at others the action jumps ahead in ways that were not only unprepared, but inexplicable.


This expansiveness affects the storytelling in several ways. (Mild spoiler alert.) During a treacherous river crossing, Elsa plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata for the cowboys on a piano the setlers must leave behind, as it was too heavy to cross the river. (The piano is in perfect tune and repair, and none of those in charge noticed how much needless ballast the settlers were carrying until it became a crisis.) The scene goes on forever, cut with flashes of a wagon foundering and a woman drowning. I understand the desire to be artistic, but, like truth, artifice should never get in the way of a good story. The drama of the river crossing dies aborning, after quite a bit of time setting it up.


There are also sloppiness issues with the continuity. Two episodes have an almost identical scene where James and Margaret discuss exactly the same thing, with exactly the same resolution. It’s near the end of one episode and the beginning of the next, so when binging it smacks you over the head. There’s also the matter of a western-moving wagon train approaching the camera, with the mountains in the background.


Then there’s Elsa’s age. Elsa notes in a voiceover that the train left Fort Worth on April 9, 1883, which is her seventeenth birthday, as she was born exactly one year after Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  Later, in an argument with her mother, she notes that now that she’s eighteen, the law says she can do what she wants. If this isn’t enough, in another scene where Margaret talks of being pregnant with Elsa while working for a sharecropper, with James in a Yankee prison camp. I’ll let you do the math on that one.


The series is beautifully photographed and reminded both The Beloved Spouse™ and me why we love our trips out west so much. Conditions on the trail appear to be as authentic as anything I’ve seen, and many action scenes are shot panoramically to give a sense of context.  Beautiful as they are, such images too often serve as padding, along with overlong shots of people’s faces to make sure we know strong emotion going on here. Sheridan would have done well to heed the advice of Reverend McLean in A River Runs Through It: “Half as long.” If you reall6y want the feel of moving across the prairies of the western frontier, check out Lonesome Dove. 1883 has many similarities, but provides no real competition is either story or character development.

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