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'1883' is wrapping its first season, but the 'Yellowstone' universe is just beginning

Paramount plans to milk the cowboy drama for prequels and spinoffs. "Yellowstone" die-hards are thrilled, although some viewers are skeptical.
Kevin Costner in "Yellowstone"
Kevin Costner in "Yellowstone."James Minchin / Paramount Network

Last spring, Elizabeth Cox binge-watched the first three seasons of the neo-Western drama “Yellowstone,” the most popular scripted series on cable television. She was captivated by the sweeping Montana landscapes and the soapy plotlines.

“I was instantly hooked on it,” said Cox, 53, an assistant at a law firm in Washington, D.C. 

She then started streaming “1883,” a prequel series about the frontier ancestors of John Dutton (Kevin Costner), the aging cattle rancher and ruthless dynast at the center of “Yellowstone.” She now thinks “1883” might even be the superior show.

Paramount and the producers behind both shows are more than happy to keep her streaming queue filled.

While fans like Cox immerse themselves deeper in “Yellowstone” lore, Paramount is hurrying to corral more stories set in the show’s fictionalized American West, staking out territory with prequels, spinoffs and other television projects from showrunner Taylor Sheridan.

Paramount has ordered up more episodes of “1883” for Paramount+, its streaming service. (The first season concluded Sunday.) The company greenlit “1932,” a Dutton family origin story set during the Depression. “6666,” a spinoff set at the real-life Four Sixes ranch in Texas, is in development.

But those are just a few of the new series on the way from Sheridan, an Oscar-nominated actor-turned-screenwriter (“Hell or High Water”) who already oversees the gritty Paramount+ crime drama “Mayor of Kingstown,” starring Jeremy Renner as a Michigan power broker. Sheridan is now poised to become one of modern television’s most prolific creators.

Image: Isabel May
Isabel May as Elsa in "1883."Emerson Miller / Paramount/CBS

He is lined up to make at least four other Paramount+ shows, all set outside the “Yellowstone” world: “Tulsa King,” a Sylvester Stallone mob drama; “Land Man,” a 1980s-set oil industry tale with Billy Bob Thornton; “Lioness,” a CIA-themed thriller with Zoe Saldaña; and “Bass Reeves,” starring David Oyelowo as the eponymous Wild West lawman.

“Kingstown,” “Tulsa King” and “Land Man” may not be directly tied to the Dutton saga, but they appear to share with “Yellowstone” an abiding interest in classic American genres, tough-guy archetypes and evocative heartland settings.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve never met another writer who can literally pop out a script in, like, two days. He just sits down at his typewriter and boom,” said Keith Cox, the president of the scripted unit of MTV Entertainment Studios, which co-produces Sheridan’s series with 101 Studios.

Big-tent television franchises are nothing new. Dick Wolf built an empire with “Law & Order” in its various incarnations. Powerhouse producers like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes keep TV lineups filled with addictive shows bearing their inimitable creative imprints.

I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve never met another writer who can literally pop out a script in, like, two days.


In the era of behemoth media franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, TV executives are hungry for intellectual property — or “IP,” in industry parlance — that drives subscribers to streaming platforms and keeps them absorbed in interconnected storylines.

Paramount+ is also eager to stand out in an increasingly crowded field of streaming services that includes Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+ and Hulu. (The first three seasons of "Yellowstone" were licensed to Peacock, the streaming service owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)

“Multi-project deals with brilliant creators like Taylor are just another example of our commitment to offering our subscribers quality content from the brands they know, love and want more from,” said Tanya Giles, the chief programming officer for streaming at Paramount.

Ratings bonanza

The ratings success of “Yellowstone” — the fourth season finale delivered over 15 million total viewers — could inspire a wave of imitators, too. NBC, for example, recently ordered a pilot about “three dynastic ranch families” and modern rodeo culture. (The Hollywood Reporter observed that the project “may draw comparisons to the Montana-set Paramount+ drama.”)

“Yellowstone” seemed to explode in popularity during the lockdown months of the pandemic, first cultivating a devoted audience in rural communities before spreading across the U.S. — even in big cities, where buzzy HBO series like “Succession” and “Euphoria” tend to swallow up more cultural oxygen. 

“The show started in the smaller, rural counties, where it did super well,” Keith Cox said. “But then it grew, and the coastal people started loving it, too. It took a minute, but it went from the middle to the coast, and not the other way around.”

The fourth season, which started airing on the Paramount Network last fall, drew an audience about 45 percent larger than that of the third installment, according to Comscore data shared with NBC News.

“Yellowstone” also earned a place in Hollywood’s awards conversation this year, picking up a Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination for outstanding performance by a drama series ensemble. ("Succession" won.)

But as Paramount saddles up for the future of the “Yellowstone” franchise, not every viewer feels as revved up about what lies ahead.

Elizabeth Cox, for example, thought the most recent season of “Yellowstone” was a “bust,” plagued by what she viewed as meandering subplots. She remained intrigued by supporting characters, like the cutthroat corporate raider Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly), but lost some interest in Costner’s family patriarch.

Travis Doeringer, 44, a video specialist who lives in Atlanta, came away from the fourth season feeling frustrated by what he saw as a drop-off in propulsive storytelling — and an excessive amount of footage of galloping horses.

“In general, you just didn’t see the strong character arcs you would expect, whereas I put the first three seasons in the league of ‘Game of Thrones.’ But this last season just did not deliver,” Doeringer said in a phone interview.

“It’s a sign to me that Taylor might be stretched thin,” Doeringer added, referring to the show’s co-creator by his first name — a sign of the “Yellowstone” fandom’s attachment to the series.

Doeringer is still deciding whether to stay on the bandwagon for “1932,” “6666” and other potential riffs on the “Yellowstone” formula. “1883,” which premiered in December and quickly became one of the top draws on Paramount+, failed to lasso his attention.

Keith Cox, the MTV Entertainment Studios executive, insisted that Sheridan will keep delivering the goods. “Taylor would raise his hand if he felt his creativity was waning," he said.

He added that Sheridan will work closely with a team of producers and directors who can help share the load on TV projects, such as "The Sopranos" and "Boardwalk Empire" alumnus Terence Winter, who will serve as showrunner on "Tulsa King."

“He’s building an army,” Keith Cox said.