“Lawmen: Bass Reeves” marks the latest entry in executive producer Taylor Sheridan’s increasingly expansive fiefdom at Paramount+, populated by various “Yellowstone” spin-offs and unaffiliated entries such as “Mayor of Kingstown” and “Tulsa King.” Like those shows, “Lawmen” gives Sheridan the opportunity to anchor a charismatic movie star to a compelling premise, all sprinkled with a high class polish paid for by the Paramount piggy bank.
Created by Chad Feehan, “Bass Reeves” stars David Oyelowo in the title role, a real life figure who went from slavery to serving as one of the country’s first Black deputy U.S. Marshals. He’s a fascinating figure who is more than worthy of a showcase all his own. (Reeves previously served as the inspiration for Denzel Washington’s gunslinger Sam Chisholm in the 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” and appeared as a character in the HBO’s “Watchmen” in 2019.)
While this “Bass Reeves” was initially intended to bear the “1883” label, marking it as part of Sheridan’s extended “Yellowstone”-verse, it’s instead being launched under the newly-invented aegis “Lawmen.” Presumably this opens the door for an anthology-style approach to future volumes examining famous officers throughout history, but in the case of this particular offering, it can stand apart from the specific expectations that, of necessity, ride side-saddle with any “Yellowstone” adjunct.
In the series’ premiere episode, streaming Nov. 5 on Paramount+, it’s 1862 and Reeves is the property of Confederate Colonel George R. Reeves (Shea Whigham). Having been forced to fight against the North, Reeves is skilled on horseback and a crack shot with a rifle. Still, he has no expectations of gaining his freedom until a sudden, unexpected circumstance. After hiding out and learning to speak various Native languages, Reeves finds himself a free man in the aftermath of the Civil War, now armed with a set of skills useful to the local constabulary.
It’s the kind of backstory you’d expect to see in pulp magazines or comic books (and, indeed, Reeves’ history was white-washed and applied to the fictional Lone Ranger), but it’s made all the more remarkable for the fact that it’s true. Of course, this being a Sheridan joint, it’s also been blessed with a movie-scale budget big enough to give the proceedings the scope they demand, with men on horseback dwarfed by the magnificent, widescreen vistas they ride against.
Also helping is an impressive cast of familiar faces who lend the project their own credibility. Foremost among these is Dennis Quad as world-weary U.S. Marshal Sherrill Lynn and Donald Sutherland as Judge Isaac Parker, the lawmen who see the potential in Reeves –– struggling at the time to make an honest go as a farmer –– to be an effective peace officer. Also in the mix are Lauren E. Banks as Reeves’ wife Jeannie, Forrest Goodluck as Billy Crow, a Cherokee conman, and Barry Pepper as a Confederate soldier who only appears briefly in the first episode but feels like he’s being set-up as a longterm nemesis or an unlikely ally.
Of course, comfortably holding the entire proceedings together is the always magnetic Oyelowo (who is also an executive producer on this project). His Reeves suffered several lifetimes worth of indignities, yet he never loses a firm grip on his moral compass. The “Selma” and “Queen of Katwe” actor portrays the character with a tightly modulated balance of ever-present empathy and barely-restrained rage. It’s a potent, volatile mix making it virtually impossible to look away whenever he’s on screen.
Unfortunately, the flip side to Oyelowo commanding the screen is that we rapidly lose interest whenever he isn’t. There is an ongoing secondary plot in the three episodes of “Bass Reeves” made available for review following his wife Jeannie’s pregnancy and her efforts at homemaking, plus the flirtations of a local boy with Reeves’ daughter Sallie. While it’s possible these plot threads will feel more integral as the season progresses, thus far they feel like a distraction from the main story.
This too is an ultimately small complaint given how compelling the main character is throughout, in both his internal and external struggles. The season is set to run 8 episodes, with the timeline covering approximately 1862-1877 (so it’s definitely for the best they eschewed the “1883” tie-in). Given that the real life Reeves died in the early 1900s, there’s plenty of room for more narrative ground should the producers decide, but even if “Bass Reeves” is a one-and-done, this first go-round of “Lawmen” has found a worthy hero.
Lawmen: Bass Reeves premieres on Sunday, Nov. 5 on Paramount+.