Since Paramount+ is rolling out the much-anticipated “Yellowstone” prequel “1883” in the thick of the holiday season, we’ll soften the standard no-spoilers review policy and offer up these two spoilery gifts: Yes, at least some of the characters making the treacherous trek from Texas to the West via the dangerous, dusty, crime-ridden Great Plains will reach their destination successfully; and yes, series leads Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, the real-life couples playing a married couple on the series, have all kinds of onscreen chemistry.
“1883,” created by “Yellowstone” maker Taylor Sheridan, offers a backstory of the Dutton family at the center of “Yellowstone.” McGraw and Hill, as James and Margaret Dutton, take it back a couple of generations – they are the grandparents of “Yellowstone” rancher John Dutton (Kevin Costner) – who are trying to leave poverty and James’ painful memories of the death and destruction he witnessed fighting in the Civil War to stake claim to a piece of land where they can forge a better life for their family.
Along with their children, teen daughter Elsa (Isabel May), young son John Dutton Sr. (Audie Rick) and James’ bitter, widowed sister and niece, James and Margaret have joined up with a group of fellow travelers — safety in numbers, they think. Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) is a tough cowboy filled with sadness about personal losses of his own, but he and his friend Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), a Pinkerton agent, have been hired to lead a group of very inexperienced immigrants who also want to find a piece of the country where they can build a safe, prosperous community.
The Duttons soon learn just how ill-prepared Brennan’s group is, though: Their de facto leader is the only one who can speak English well, i.e., the only one who can communicate the quickie training instructions Brennan and Thomas try to impart. The group doesn’t know about not drinking river water without boiling it, for instance, nor are they wise about the ways of the rattlesnake, which one young woman learns the hard way.
In the three episodes of “1883” provided for review, it’s clear that the joint journey of the Duttons and Brennan’s group is going to be filled with tragedies and losses, and confrontations with people who want to do them harm or take what they have. And they still haven’t even made it to the part that will require them to get their horses and covered wagons across wide, deep, rock-filled rivers. Even for viewers who have yet to delve into “Yellowstone,” the tension and intensity is compelling.
That is largely due to the main cast; it’s a large group, and some of the supporting cast stand out along the way. But Elliott is the head hombre in charge, the calming leader we always want him to be when he’s working in his Western wheelhouse. As Thomas, Garrett is just as adept at trying to make sure his charges stay alive as they move West, and he helps keep Elliott’s character grounded.
The added pressure on the Dutton family in their unpaid role assisting their less experienced travel companions provides the opportunity for us to get to know how these family members become pivotal in the history of the “Yellowstone” universe. McGraw’s James is a kind man, willing to use his skills to help Brennan and company, but he also makes it plain to everyone around him: His family is his first priority. Elizabeth and Elsa are as capable with horses and guns as James is, and though the mother and wanderlust-filled, independent daughter butt heads, Hill and May portray them as strong women who do not defer to anyone, even in this long ago era when women were expected to do so.
And then there’s that McGraw/Hill chemistry. The premiere features what viewers will come to refer to as “the bathtub scene”: In a hotel room meant to pamper his wife before their grueling slog, James carries enough hot water up the stairs to fill the bathtub in their room. He joins her in the tub, where she shaves him and they make out. It’s spicy and establishes their tight bond, something they’re going to need to remember during the challenging times ahead.
“1883” premieres on Paramount+ on Dec. 19.