Once upon a time, Taylor Sheridan was just a working actor with chiseled good looks.
Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and raised in Texas (where he hung with the fam on a ranch in Cranfills Gap), Sheridan spent the ’90s and the aughts doing guest shots on various primetime dramas, landing steady gigs on Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy. He later turned his talents to screenwriting, scripting such bullet-riddled, testosterone-fueled crime yarns as the Sicario movies and Hell or High Water (which got him an Oscar nod for best original screenplay).
Now, Sheridan has become television’s latest superstar auteur, churning out hour-long neo-Westerns one after another. High atop the list is Yellowstone, also known as the most popular drama on television. Set in the wide-open spaces of Montana, the show is about a powerful family of ranchers, led by a raspy-voiced Kevin Costner, who recently won a Golden Globe for his role as the ornery-but-wise patriarch.
Now five seasons deep, it’s the crown jewel of the Paramount Network. The season five premiere last November brought in 16 million viewers. It’s also a hit with the conservative crowd—at least, that’s what some media outlets have alleged. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called Yellowstone “the most red-state show on television,” even suggesting that it’s a far superior story of a powerful dad and his battling siblings than that other Sunday-night cable drama: HBO’s Succession. Countless thinkpieces have pitted the shows against each other, with the acclaimed, award-winning Succession being for the coastal elites and the critically dismissed Yellowstone repping for the Trumpers and right-wingers. (Both shows also feature an actress from another country—Yellowstone has Kelly Reilly, a Brit, while Succession has Aussie Sarah Snook—playing a vengeful, cunning daughter.)
Even though he keeps his political leanings under wraps (Yellowstone co-star/activist Piper Perabo recently admitted she and her boss “don’t always agree politically”), he’s downplayed talk of him being a right-wing propagandist in the press. “People perceive all my stuff as red state, and it’s the most ridiculous thing,” he told the New York Times. When The Atlantic did a recent profile on him, he set the record straight on his prized creation. “The show’s talking about the displacement of Native Americans and the way Native American women were treated and about corporate greed and the gentrification of the West, and land-grabbing. That’s a red-state show?”
Yellowstone has also spawned limited-series prequels over at streaming service Paramount+. In 1883, country music power couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill play the great-grandparents who start up the family ranch, while Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford are the great-grandaunt and uncle who keep the ranch going in the recently premiered 1923. More Yellowstone spinoffs are in the works, including Bass Reeves, starring David Oyelowo as the titular, real-life lawman, and 6666, a modern-day cowboy story that’ll be set on the Texas-based Four Sixes Ranch (which Sheridan now owns). He’s also working on another Texas-set show: Land Man, based on the Texas Monthly podcast Boomtown about the West Texas oil boom, starring Billy Bob Thornton.
Houston writer and critic Pete Vonder Haar is a fan of Yellowstone and its spinoffs, and he believes that people who say Sheridan is a red-state dramatist aren’t watching the shows. “I know Sheridan gets a lot of flak for being some kind of MAGA champion,” says Vonder Haar. “But honestly, his depiction of Native American characters, like in 1923 —with the depiction of the religious education camps—that’s not really a cowboys-and-Indians kind of perspective.”
Sheridan doesn’t just stick to rustic settings. He also has shows on Paramount+ that are both urban and contemporary. In Mayor of Kingstown, which just began its second season earlier this month, Jeremy Renner (who starred in Sheridan’s directorial debut Wind River) plays a power broker trying to keep cops and criminals from killing each other in a decaying Michigan town. There’s also Tulsa King, with Sylvester Stallone as an ex-con mobster who gets sent to Oklahoma’s second-largest city to strike up some business. And, coming soon, he’ll have Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman starring in the spy thriller Lioness.
Yes, Sheridan has created his own streaming universe, filled with serialized stories of men, mostly amped up on machismo, a moral code, and a strong belief in family, presiding over a region they either inherited or seized from somebody. As for the women, they’re either there for support or conflict—and that’s usually it. (Female writers have already discussed Sheridan’s failure to create multi-dimensional female characters in both movies and TV.) Usually benevolent, even vulnerable creatures, these kings still rule with unwavering intimidation, ready to put their feet to the asses of anybody who dares to step out of line.
You could also say that’s how Sheridan runs his empire. With the exception of Tulsa King, which has a writers’ room overseen by Sopranos vet and Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter, Sheridan usually writes every episode of every show, demanding full creative control and that studio execs not bother him with notes. According to that Atlantic profile, when Paramount supplied him with a writers’ room for Yellowstone’s second season, he rarely used them, eventually firing them all before the third season rolled along. Apparently, he can’t stomach the thought of other pesky scribes writing his characters.
It is making fans wonder if dude is spreading himself too thin, as some shows appear to be lacking in the consistency department while others are thriving. Although I’m not a diehard Sheridan stan, I personally find the dust-covered Yellowstone prequels far more intriguing than the original, a salacious soap opera that Sheridan unfortunately treats with the utmost seriousness. At least Succession gives viewers the freedom to laugh at its spoiled, amoral assholes, as their pitiful attempts at backstabbing and double-crossing often border on the farcical. And Tulsa King is a snarky, more entertaining ride than Mayor of Kingstown, which is basically The Wire without clever writing and a whole lotta F-bombs.
I’m not the only one who feels Sheridan might need some help keeping the drama flowing. “Right now, I think Yellowstone is probably my least favorite of the Sheridan properties, because I think it’s kind of grinding itself to the ground,” says Vonder Haar. “It’s getting repetitive with the interfamily conflicts. Honestly, I’m liking the other properties, like Tulsa King and 1923, better at this point.”
As much as Sheridan wants to be Louis L’Amour for the streaming era, he’s more like Ryan Murphy for guys who drink beer, chew tobacco, ride horses, and get into fights just cuz at the local honky-tonk. In fact, if you take away the cuss words, occasional boob shots, and intense moments of violence, these shows could easily fill the prime-time schedule on CBS, aka “America’s Most-Watched Network.” Since CBS, the Paramount Network, and Paramount+ are all owned by Paramount Global, there’s a strong possibility this bronco-riding bard may gallop over to the Tiffany Network in the near future. But whether you live on the coasts or smack dab in the middle of this country, his manly, meat-and-potatoes melodramas are just the kind of middlebrow, populist, appointment television people can easily binge.