"Yellowstone": An epic series tries to define a struggling network

Sometimes, we expect films to be big and stupid or small and smart. (Sometimes, we expect the same of people; sometimes, we're right.) But "Yellowstone" beats all expectations.It's big, sprawling, ambitious and intelligent; it's also the best bet for the struggling Paramount Network to define itself. The show has its impressive debut Wednesday (June 20); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In an era of
re-invention, we should be used to this: Cable networks change their
names and identities with the ease of a master spy or a third-rate
scam artist.

The Christian
Broadcasting Network became The Family Channel, then Fox Family, ABC
Family and Freeform. The Nashville Network became the National
Network, then Spike and now Paramount.

That leaves viewers
perplexed. For its first five wobbly months, they had nothing special
to identify the Paramount Network with. Now they do: “Yellowstone”
starts Wednesday.

“It truly
encompasses everything we want Paramount Network to be .... It looks
like a movie, trust me,” said Keith Cox, the network's production

In this rare case,
you can trust a network guy. Cox can be wrong about other things,
including the “Heathers” series. (“The show's so phenomenal, it
needs to get out; people have gotta see that show,” he said in
January ... before Paramount decided people shouldn't see it at all.)
But his enthusiasm for “Yellowstone” is justified. “That could
be on HBO,” he said. “That could be anywhere. It's so epic.”

It's filmed in the
expanses of Montana and Utah. “We have a very good job,” said
Kevin Costner, who stars. “(We) wake up in a place as beautiful as

But this isn't one
of those shows with big vistas and small ideas. It's from Taylor
Sheridan, who wrote “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” (drawing
an Oscar nomination) and “Wind River,” which he directed.

The acclaimed “Wind
River” has much in common with “Yellowstone,” including Gil
Birmingham and Kelsey Asbille in key American Indian roles. Still,
Sheridan sees that movie as “the opposite of what 'Yellowstone' has
been. We had no money; we had no time.”

Now he has the
backing of a big-time studio, eager to give its namesake network a
strong start.

Paramount Pictures
has been around under various names since 1912. (Universal is the
only older studio, and that's only by eight days.) It has bought
various cable networks, including MTV, CMT, BET, Comedy Central,
Nickelodeon ... and what was then The Nashville Network.

After Paramount took
it, that became The National Network in 2000. In 2003 it became
Spike, inexplicably calling itself “the first network for men,”,
with lots of movies and wrestlers and such.

Since then, it's
created few essential series. When the Paramount Network began in
January, Kevin Kay (its president) said “We don't want the Spike
audience to go away” -- but he kept only a few Spike shows: “Bar
Rescue,” “Ink Master” and “Lip Sync Battle.”

That leaves
Paramount trying to define itself. Its first effort (a mini-series
about the Waco stand-off) was well-received; its second (“Heathers”)
was not. Some critics savaged the dark high school drama; Paramount
pulled it before its debut (citing the Parkland shootings),
re-scheduled it for July 7, then pulled it again and began looked for
another network to sell it to.

A third show
(“American Woman”) has been OK, but “Yellowstone” is the one
that could fit the network name. As a movie studio, Paramount is the
home of “Gump,” “Grease” and “Godfather,” plus the
Indiana Jones and “Star Trek” films and more. And “Yellowstone”
feels like a mega-movie.

Costner says he
plays “a pretty complicated guy” with a giant ranch and a life he
lives by helicopter and by horseback. “He's half in the Western
world and half modern-day CEO,” Costner said.

His daughter is a
fierce businesswoman, one son is a lawyer and the other had a falling
out. “I've come back from war,” said Luke Grimes, who plays him.
“I served as a Navy SEAL, so aspects of normal life are tough for
me .... I've moved onto the reservation with my wife.”

That's Asbille's
character. “She's a young working mom,” Asbille said. “She's
been through Hell this season.” But, at least, she's done it in a
heavenly setting.

-- “Yellowstone”
debuts 9-10:56 p.m. Wednesday (June 20). That reruns at 10:56 p.m.
and 1 a.m., then Saturday night at 1 a.m. and Sunday at 11:01 p.m.;
also, 11 p.m. June 20 on CMT.

-- After that, the
10-hour season is 10 p.m. Wednesdays, rerunning at 1 a.m.

-- On Thursdays,
Paramount has “American Woman” at 10 p.m. (rerunning at 1 a.m.)
and “Lip Sync Battle” at 10:30 and 11. “Lip Sync Battle”
reruns often.

-- “Bar Rescue”
is 10 p.m. Sundays, preceded by a rerun marathon starting at 11 a.m.
It also has reruns on weekdays, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. “Ink Master”
has finished its 10th season. Beyond that, Paramount has
lots of “Friends” reruns and action movies.