Yellowstone, a violent drama about familial legacy and the tides of changes in the mountains of Montana, is the most-watched show on cable in the US, though depending on where you live, you might not know it.
The Paramount Network drama starring Kevin Costner as the stony, scheming owner of the largest contiguous ranch in the US drew over 11 million people for its fourth season finale earlier this month without streaming, ratings not seen since the heyday of such 2010s staples as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, which were both broadly popular and critically feted. (The HBO fantasy epic’s sixth season, for example, averaged 10.61 million first-week viewers including streaming; AMC’s zombie apocalypse staple peaked in its fifth season from 2014-2015 with an average of 14.4 million viewers per episode).
Yet despite batting in the same league as Thrones and The Walking Dead without a clear streaming outlet (full seasons were licensed to NBC’s Peacock, while new episodes land on CBS’s nascent streaming network Paramount+), Yellowstone doesn’t court the critical attention or media scrutiny as its ratings predecessors. Co-creator Taylor Sheridan (who also serves as head writer and occasional director) has drawn accolades for gritty neo-westerns such as Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, but Yellowstone, which premiered in 2018, has been ignored by awards shows. (It received its first major nomination, a 2022 Screen Actors Guild nod for best ensemble in a drama, on Wednesday.) Culture websites such as Vulture and the Ringer publish episode-by-episode recaps, but there’s not nearly the essays, media Twitter chatter or substantive analyses of, say, HBO’s Succession, the buzzy and bruising portrait of a media conglomerate family which parallels Yellowstone’s thematic frame – mega-wealth, squabbling siblings, a family guarding its assets – and offers a stark contrast to its lack of critical attention.
Streaming was supposed to be the great equalizer, for either access to content (see: global megahits like Netflix’s Squid Game, the South Korean dystopian drama which reached a whopping 111m households worldwide in late 2021) or its segmentation into competitive platforms warring for their niche and slice of IP. Yellowstone presents a fascinating rebuke to these trends: a word-of-mouth hit in the heartland, for lack of a better term for the loose but distinct geographical segmentation in the US, and a phenomenon of cultural silos between urban-skewing consumers of premium cable and ex-urban (smaller cities surrounded by agricultural land, suburbs, small towns, rural communities) consumers of basic cable. Paramount is building a popular universe around the success of Yellowstone – the prequel 1883, starring the country super couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as well as Sam Elliott, scored the biggest debut for a cable show since 2015 in December – and a good portion of the country hasn’t noticed.
It’s difficult not to compare Yellowstone and Succession, both on a superficial level and as an indicator of cultural bubbles. Though tonally opposite – Succession is serrated, cynical and lyrically profane, Yellowstone…