The ‘Yellowstone’ Empire: How Taylor Sheridan Struck TV Gold by Reinventing the Western

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“Write what you know” are words to live by for any writer. Taylor Sheridan, showrunner and architect of the fast-expanding “Yellowstone” universe, excels at creating modern Western characters because he is exactly that.

When Variety catches up with Sheridan for an in-depth look at the narrative worlds he is crafting for Paramount TV platforms, it is at the Schmersal horse ranch near Scottsdale, Ariz. Keen-eyed viewers may recognize the location from “The Last Cowboy,” the reality series that Sheridan executive produces.

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. - Credit: Ryan Pfluger for Variety
. - Credit: Ryan Pfluger for Variety

Ryan Pfluger for Variety

Sheridan arrives for the interview outfitted in a cowboy hat, aviator sunglasses, a denim jacket and jeans, a torn white T-shirt and boots with spurs that jangle every time he moves his feet. He has just come from an equestrian workout, riding a horse in a large covered arena where he has practiced reining, or leading, the animal through a series of spins, stops and circles.

But Sheridan is not a man indulging in a boyhood fantasy of being a cowboy, nor is he donning a costume. Rather, the Schmersal setting offers a glimpse into the key to Sheridan’s success in the neo-Western space: his authenticity.

“For me, a sense of place is so incredibly important,” he says. “When I wrote ‘Yellowstone,’ I went to Montana. Now, I lived up in that area for many, many years, so I knew it very well.”

Sheridan’s auteur career has soared over the past half-decade with the success of the Paramount Network drama “Yellowstone,” led by Kevin Costner as John Dutton, the patriarch of a Montana ranching empire. A slow build, the series has grown into a massive heartland hit.

“Yellowstone,” which is likely to be a strong Emmy contender after breaking through this year with a SAG Award nomination for ensemble drama, proves there is more to TV drama than cops, doctors and lawyers in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — and it is also a welcome reminder for the industry that traditional cable TV can still have real traction, with the right show. Moreover, the series has defied gravity by becoming a hit even with limited availability via streaming.

READ MORE: Taylor Sheridan Knows His Nine-Show TV Slate Is ‘Excessive’: ‘This Volume of Work Is Not Sustainable’

Two years ago, Paramount (the new corporate moniker for ViacomCBS) sold off rerun rights to “Yellowstone” to NBCUniversal’s Peacock. The deal was made before Paramount decided to rev up its own streaming platform, with the transformation last year of CBS All Access into Paramount+. Now, “Yellowstone” spinoff series are high-wattage originals for Paramount+, but the mothership show is tethered to the linear Paramount Network, and the reruns are primarily available on a rival streamer with modest distribution. (Paramount’s Pluto TV streaming platform has had limited access to the show.)

Nonetheless, “Yellowstone” has drawn a big crowd, particularly in Season 4 after more viewers sampled the show amid COVID lockdowns.

Chris McCarthy, president of MTV Entertainment Group, which includes Paramount Network, credits Sheridan with reinventing the concept of the Western for a new era.

“Neo-Westerns are really unique in that they are beautifully sophisticated, cinematic scripted programming,” McCarthy says. “But if you’re not into Westerns, that’s OK, because these are just great stories about family dynamics.”

. - Credit: Ryan Pfluger for Variety
. - Credit: Ryan Pfluger for Variety

Ryan Pfluger for Variety

But Sheridan’s work has a signature that is becoming clear to viewers, even in non-Westerns such as Paramount+ Jeremy Renner starrer “Mayor of Kingstown,” about a dynastic family in a town where a prison is the major industry.

Now, as Sheridan busily expands the world of the Duttons with prequel “1883,” a second prequel set some 50 years later and a spinoff on the way, the multi-hyphenate is seizing the moment to build a vibrant roster of shows. And “Yellowstone” Season 5, which picks up where the previous season left off — with John Dutton launching a bid for governor — will be the biggest yet, with Paramount splitting the 14 installments into two 7-episode offerings. Production is set to begin next month with a premiere date in late summer.

Costner was drawn in from his first read of the “Yellowstone” pilot.

“I saw that the dialogue had a fun, realistic approach to it. It was raw. It was dysfunctional,” Costner says. “And it was set against the backdrop of mountains and rivers and valleys and people on horseback, which is very appealing.”

Sheridan grew up on a ranch in Cranfills Gap, Texas — about 140 miles north of Austin — before eventually making his way to Los Angeles to become an actor. After several years of mostly bit parts (a “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” guest shot here, a “Party of Five” there), he graduated by the 2000s to more prominent supporting roles on series such as “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

But he was restless. About 10 years ago, Sheridan set his mind on making a big career change into writing. Yet, for all of his Texas true grit, he could not have known that he’d soon become one of the most successful creators of his time. His first screenplays — 2015’s “Sicario” and 2016’s “Hell or High Water,” the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination — put him on the map. From there, “Yellowstone” wasn’t far behind.

“He’s the real deal,” says David Glasser, Sheridan’s producing partner and CEO of 101 Studios. “His word is his bond. Loyalty is everything, and then the handshake means something. That’s who he is. And as long as you operate in that world, it’s great. And creatively, he blows my mind every single time.”

Sheridan has remained a cowboy to his core. He owns and operates two ranches outside Dallas, where he regularly spends his mornings rounding up herds of cattle. He was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2021.

Yet he maintains an unusual level of control on his series. Sheridan has written or co-written every single episode of “Yellowstone,” which after four seasons has grown into one of the most influential shows on television. He also has a recurring role on the series as horse trader Travis Wheatley.

. - Credit: Ryan Pfluger for Variety
. - Credit: Ryan Pfluger for Variety

Ryan Pfluger for Variety

His exacting vision has helped popularize the rise of neo-Westerns — stories that take the conventions of the Western genre and place them in the present. Sheridan’s surroundings in Arizona reflect those crosscurrents. The horses at Schmersal ranch are among the most prized in the country, with ranch owner Craig Schmersal having earned millions of dollars in winnings in reining competitions over the years. The high-end ranch is also situated in a rapidly growing and affluent area. A Four Seasons resort is a short drive away, and a housing development under construction nearby advertises homes “starting in the mid $2 millions.”

Since the 2018 debut of “Yellowstone” — which includes themes of the rancher way of life, fighting off outside forces trying to spoil the remaining wilds of the West and conflict with Native American tribes — a number of other shows that fit the neo-Western subgenre have either premiered or are in the works. Among them: The CW launched the “Walker, Texas Ranger” reboot “Walker” starring Jared Padalecki in 2021; Amazon just debuted the sci-fi-themed “Outer Range” with Josh Brolin as a rancher who discovers a mystery in the Wyoming wilderness; NBC is piloting the drama “Unbroken,” about three rival rancher families in California; and Fox is developing a series version of “Hell or High Water.” (Sheridan is not involved.)

It should come as no surprise that other outlets want to replicate the success of “Yellowstone.” The Paramount Network drama pulled in 14.7 million viewers for its Season 4 premiere in November. That’s no small feat for any show these days, let alone a basic cable series.

“So I don’t know that it’s flattering, because I don’t think they’re doing it because ‘Yellowstone’ is good,” Sheridan says. “They’re doing it because 15 million people watch it. And they’re like: ‘A lot of people watch Westerns. Let’s make Westerns.’”

“Yellowstone” has also finally started to get some love from the awards community, picking up its first-ever Emmy, SAG and Producers Guild Award nominations for last season’s shows.

While Costner reiterates that he knew “Yellowstone” was good, the show’s slow burn left him wondering whether it would ever become a hit.

“I don’t start something unless I think it has a chance to be great,” Costner says. “I felt that the people that would see it would appreciate it. But when something gets this kind of extra kick — you can’t predict that.”

Sheridan came by his love and admiration for the lore of the American West not just from his upbringing but also from the media he consumed.

“I was very influenced by writers like Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Toni Morrison, who wrote about the time around the Civil War, which is obviously very similar themes,” he says. “There’s a lot of Westerns about it. And in terms of the movies that influenced me, it was watching ‘Unforgiven’ when I was in my late teens or very early 20s. The same with ‘Dances With Wolves,’ where you’re looking at the Western genre through a whole new lens that had never been explored before.”

Sheridan says he is loath to tell anyone how to write but does believe that authenticity is critical to success. “That said, any other artist could decide to go through and take the genre and turn it on its ear, he says. “You don’t have to do what I did.”

His desire for accuracy does not just apply to neo-Westerns. While developing a project about the space race years ago, Sheridan says he spent six months at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge, Calif., learning the language of space travel and rocket design before he wrote a word.

“If I just tried to sit down and write it and Wikipedia some things, then it would have felt false, right?” he says.

The success of Sheridan’s way of doing things is undeniable. His knowledge and love of Middle America is what gave “Yellowstone” its solid base of support, with the show significantly over-indexing in the ratings in more rural parts of the country. That began to change over the past two years, however, due in part to the pandemic. As Sheridan says, “Because everyone had watched virtually everything else in about six weeks” when the lockdowns began, they eventually found themselves with nothing else to watch but “Yellowstone.”

. - Credit: Ryan Pfluger for Variety
. - Credit: Ryan Pfluger for Variety

Ryan Pfluger for Variety

The show has now found a whole new audience in the major cities on the East and West coasts, despite its rural narrative being far from metropolitan reality.

“Whether people want to admit it or not, some people don’t realize that that way of life is still alive,” Costner says. “This meat doesn’t get to our cities without somebody getting up early in the morning and late at night taking care of those animals in some way. It’s a way of life still. You know that the country still has some big open spaces. And [‘Yellowstone’] takes that all in.”

MTV Entertainment Group’s McCarthy says that while COVID limits in 2020 and 2021 sparked viewers on the coasts to discover the show, it was critical to him that the cable brands under his purview put their full weight into helping promote “Yellowstone” after MTV Studios came onboard as a producer. That, among other changes, boosted the series’ audience growth even more.

“I really wanted to relaunch the series with Season 3 to align with the incredible cinematic nature of what Taylor created,” McCarthy says. “So we moved it to a new night, on Sundays [the show had aired on Wednesdays], which obviously signifies a different quality of story.”

As “Yellowstone” settles into its new status as a prestige player, Sheridan believes it allows many viewers to learn something about a vital part of the American experience.

“Our job as artists is to hold a mirror up to the world and let people see the reflection, to teach them about a part of life and human experience that they may not be aware of,” he says. “Whenever we’re ignorant of something, then typically we fear it, or we judge it, or we dislike it. And it’s the job of all artists, I think, to try and find these little pockets of the world and show some humanity.”

The irony is that Sheridan’s success in the neo-Western space has paved the dusty road for him to make an honest-to-goodness horse opera: the well-received Paramount+ series “1883.” Starring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, the “Yellowstone” prequel follows early members of the Dutton family on their journey west as they first settle in Montana. That will soon be followed by “1932,” which picks up the Duttons’ story during the Great Depression.Another 035 planned spinoff, “6666” — named after a historic Texas ranch — is set in the present.

Working on the period dramas has been a treat for Sheridan, who admits that it feels surreal at times that he can earn a living by shooting 40 real covered wagons driving across the plains.

“I think that if I ever decide to make things in a place that network executives would actually visit, a lot of this would probably stop,” Sheridan jokes. “As long as I stay way the heck out — far from a Starbucks or paved roads — I’m pretty good.”

Styling: Lisa Cera; Grooming: Grooming by Michelle Harvey at Opus Beauty using R+Co

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