Yellowstone: the smash-hit TV show that exposed a cultural divide | Television

Yesellowstone, a violent drama about family legacy and the tides of change in the mountains of Montana, is the most watched cable show in the United States, although depending on where you live you might not know. maybe not.

The Paramount Network drama starring Kevin Costner as the crafty and scheming owner of America’s largest contiguous ranch drew more than 11 million people for its fourth season finale earlier this month without streaming , ratings never seen since the heyday of such 2010s staples like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, which were both widely popular and critically celebrated. (The sixth season of HBO’s fantasy epic, for example, averaged 10.61 million viewers in the first week, including streaming; AMC’s zombie apocalypse peaked in its fifth season of 2014. to 2015 with an average of 14.4 million viewers per episode).

Yet despite beating in the same league as Thrones and The Walking Dead without a clear streaming release (full seasons have been allowed to NBC’s Peacock, while new episodes land on CBS’s fledgling Paramount + streaming network) ), Yellowstone does not woo the critical attention or scrutiny of the media that its rating predecessors did. Co-creator Taylor Sheridan (who is also chief writer and occasional director) has received praise for serious neo-westerns like Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, but Yellowstone, which premiered in 2018, has been ignored by the awards show. . (It received its first major nomination on Wednesday, a Screen Actors Guild 2022 nod for Best Ensemble in Drama.) Cultural websites like Vulture and The Ringer post episode-by-episode recaps, but they don’t. Not nearly the essays, Twitter media gossip or in-depth analysis of, say, HBO Estate, the buzzing and murderous portrayal of a family of media conglomerates that parallels the Yellowstone thematic setting – mega-wealth, brothers and bickering sisters, a family that keeps its assets – and stands in stark contrast to its lack of critical care.

Streaming was supposed to be the great equalizer, whether it was for access to content (see: global megahits like Netflix’s Squid Game, the South Korean dystopian drama that reached 111 million homes worldwide by the end of 2021) or its segmentation into competing platforms at war for their niche. and IP slice. Yellowstone presents a fascinating rebuke to these trends: word-of-mouth in the heart of the country, for lack of a better term to refer to the loose but distinct geographic segmentation in the United States, and a phenomenon of cultural silos between urban consumers of high-end products. cable and ex-urban (small towns surrounded by farmland, suburbs, small towns, rural communities) basic cable consumers. Paramount is building a popular universe around the success of Yellowstone – the 1883 prequel, starring country super couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as well as Sam Elliott, marked the biggest debut for a cable show since 2015 in December – and a good part of the country did not notice.

It’s hard not to compare Yellowstone and Succession, both on a superficial level and as an indicator of cultural bubbles. Though tonally opposed – Succession is jagged, cynical, and lyrically profane, Yellowstone elegaic, melodramatic, and prone to philosophical reflections – both represent ultra-wealthy scions scrambling to protect their assets (a media conglomerate akin to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp; a ranch the size of Rhode Island) from threats outside the family (other businesses, real estate developers and Native American tribes seeking restitution).

Both engage in obscure business disputes (hostile takeovers and shareholder meetings, land and water use rights). The two patriarchs prefer to travel by helicopter, while the offspring (three sons and a daughter, the most difficult of all) compete for attention and approval. Both established lush visual patterns to communicate lofty ambitions – for Succession, the airy, impersonal luxury suggests the total soullessness of mega-wealth; for Yellowstone, wide shots of highlands and ruthless depictions of ranching argue that its land is the soul worth fighting for.

But despite all the cultural fixation, Succession draws only a fraction of the Yellowstone audience. The Emmy-winning drama captured its largest audience to date, 1.7 million viewers across all platforms (including HBO Max), for its third season finale in December, largely focused in major cities where it became. word of mouth (and memes generator) success for the line; 73% of its audience for the recent final was located in so-called A markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Yellowstone, on the other hand, has gained popularity outside of major markets, which account for 28% of its fourth season viewers, according to the Wall Street Journal. The season premiere in November 2021, for example, drew 14.7 million non-streaming viewers, and performed particularly well in small towns whose farming foundations resonate with the bread and butter farming sequences of the world. show and focus on property disputes – Abilene, Texas; Boise, Idaho; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Lexington, Kentucky; and Topeka, Kansas, not to mention the area around Bozeman, MT, where much of the show takes place.

Part of this divide comes down to the mechanics of delivery – basic cable, which contains the Paramount network, peaked in market saturation in 2010 with 105 million homes; as of 2021, it has fallen to around 82.9 million and is older. HBO and HBO Max, a premium cable network and streaming service, by contrast, had 45.2 million US subscribers last year. Part of this is due to the savvy marketing efforts of Paramount’s parent company, ViacomCBS, which has pushed the show into smaller markets. And part of it comes down to the theme: More than anything else, Yellowstone is concerned about land ownership – most of the conflict stems from Costner’s John Dutton and his family trying to keep the ranch in their name – an idealization. of the American dream of home ownership resonating with the public outside the cities of mobile tenants and in places where ownership of physical assets dictates local power.

Kevin Costner in Yellowstone. Photography: Kevin Lynch

In other words, Yellowstone is the spectacle of what historian historian Patrick Wyman has called the American Gentry – the class of local elites who own land and businesses in smaller markets across the country, whose politics tends to be conservative and the influence of which tends to wane. – covered over flashy oligarchs, billionaires, and those whose wealth is not tied to a specific location. As the wealth inherited in the United States tends to disappear, this class is disproportionately white, as is the public in Yellowstone; The show consistently ranks among the least diverse viewers on television in the United States (in February 2021, for example, Yellowstone generated the lowest proportion of non-white viewers of any show, at 23%, according to the company Samba TV analysis).

Yellowstone’s conservative ethic has led some commentators to defend it as a rebuke from the liberal media – former View host Meghan McCain, for example, attributed her success to being “not awake,” and several media have called it “prestige television for the conservatives”. Which is true to some extent; Yellowstone is conservative in a tiny sense, as its primary concern is the sense of a way of life (i.e. white ranchers) threatened by progress, outsiders, and an evolving culture. “I don’t know if this is uniquely American fear or just human fear: the fear that a way of life will end,” Sheridan told the New York Times in late December 2021. “C is what drives our policy at the moment. I think it’s a huge theme, this fear of losing someone you love or a place you love. It’s pretty universal.

Sheridan is on to something. This is oversimplifying to dismiss Yellowstone as a ‘red state estate,’ but the show’s ambitious richness and victimizing fantasy (and genuinely entertaining romance, slurs, and conversational failures) clearly resonated outside of bounds. critical buzz concentrated in liberal cities. Depending on your social circle, this is either obvious or surprising – a fact that, like the show drawing millions of Americans to live television weekly, demands careful consideration.

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