'1883' Review: 'Yellowstone' Spinoff Has Lots of Promise and a Badass Tim McGraw Performance

1883, aka Paramount+'s Yellowstone prequel, is here, but the thing is, I don't even know exactly what to make of it. Is it some of the boring wagon train Western stuff I, a millennial, just can't get in to? Yeah. But does it also have some absolutely badass and exciting moments paired with superb acting? You're damn right it does.

Paramount+ gave me the first three episodes to screen, and I really felt different about each of the three. The first was a very welcome surprise. We aren't just thrown into a random wagon trail quest to the West. We get a feel for our key cast of characters including Tim McGraw's James Dutton and Sam Elliott's Shea Brennan. Those two performances in particular will blow you away. Elliott digs deep while also being the cowboy you know and love from the many Westerns I admittedly have not seen in full. (I'll watch Tombstone soon, I promise.) Whatever you think his "guide to the West" character is gonna be, just know there's another layer to him that makes him more complex.

And McGraw might just be my favorite part of 1883. This is a realization that made me ask, "Tim McGraw? The same Tim McGraw that had that lame Nelly song and inspired a Taylor Swift single that made every Southern teen girl circa 2006 weep?" This man is a total badass as the Dutton patriarch, something I wasn't quite expecting. Now, am I that familiar with McGraw's filmography? No. Did I think the edgiest thing he ever did was get a BBQ stain on his white T-shirt? Yes. I might just be ignorant of the man's talents, but in 1883, he shines as a father, as a cowboy, and as a lead in a high-budget streaming TV drama. 

Another highlight is Isabel May, who plays Elsa Dutton (the daughter of McGraw's James and Faith Hill's Margaret). She's best known as the titular Kate in Netflix's Alexa & Katie. Despite being a relative youngin', I am a bit out of the demographic for that sitcom, so she was another big surprise for me in 1883. She's really rad in this, and gets more to work with here than the average "farmer's daughter" character would. Her inclusion makes 1883 far from just the "Tim and Faith Western Variety Hour featuring the cowboy guy from The Big Lebowski" that I was kind of expecting from the marketing. She is a fresh and interesting perspective to see the western genre through.

Moving on to Episode 2 after that solid set-up, I was much more underwhelmed. This installment showed a slow "people struggling in covered wagons" show I was afraid of. While it ends on a punching note and has a great guest appearance from Billy Bob Thorton as Marshal Jim Courtright, it wasn't enough for me. I thought I was suckered in with a promising opener only to be stuck watching Oregon Trail: The Show. Luckily, Episode 3 made me regain my confidence.

While the struggles of the wagon train are still apparent, that Taylor Sheridan balance between slow moments, action and over-the-top dramatics is met. (Sheridan is the writer-director behind 1883, Yellowstone and the gem of a movie Wind River.) There are some wild moments, gripping action and slow moments that let our characters get emotional and breathe without things getting too dry. This is a show I'm interested in watching more of: tempers rising over routes, clashes on how to handle a massive group of travelers, intimate family moments and some great acting throughout it all. I don't exactly care about people dying from dysentery and eating beans over a fire for months on end. This is a TV show, not the worst documentary you fell asleep during in American History class sophomore year.

While I wish I had a more complete picture to sell you when it comes to 1883 Season 1, the first three episodes show a lot of promise. Sheridan could have Paramount+'s first bonafide needle-moving hit. (The jury's out on the South Park specials' drawing power, and I'm just gonna be dismissive of Star Trek: Discovery because I'm more of a lightsaber kind of guy). If the rest of the episodes can walk the tightrope between conflicts in the Old West and the soap opera theatrics that have made Yellowstone a massive success, he'll have fans hooked.

(Photo: Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

1883's first two episodes are currently streaming on Paramount+, with the third episode and following installments premiering each Sunday. MTV Entertainment Studios and 101 Studios produce the show, with Sheridan, John Linson, Art Linson, David C. Glasser, Ron Burkle and Bob Yari being credited as executive producers. In addition to the performers noted above, 1883's cast also includes LaMonica Garrett, Audie Rick, Marc Rissmann, Eric Nelsen and James Landry Hebert. There is also an incredibly random cameo from an A-lister I don't wanna spoil, but it has been widely reported already.

As for the flagship show, Yellowstone, it's airing each Sunday night on Paramount Network at 8 p.m. ET, with Seasons 1-3 streamable on Peacock. I would also like you to know this review was written while listening to the Red Dead Redemption score, an excellent soundtrack from an amazing piece of Western media I recommend you play or watch gameplay of, even if you're not much of a video game person!