“Lawmen: Bass Reeves” bears many of the trademarks of executive producer Taylor Sheridan, who now counts the anthology drama among his sprawling (and still growing) stable of shows for the streaming service Paramount+. The hour-long series is a big-budget Western with an overqualified cast — a rough synopsis that also applies to Sheridan touchstones like “1883” and “1923,” both star-studded prequels to his breakout hit “Yellowstone.” This particular ensemble is led by David Oyelowo as Reeves, a real-life historical figure and formerly enslaved U.S. Marshal who worked west of the Mississippi in the late 19th century. In 2019, Reeves was a minor character in Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen”; here, he gets a starring role.
But of all the projects greenlit under Sheridan’s blockbuster deal with Paramount Global, “Bass Reeves” features the least day-to-day involvement from Sheridan himself. The actor-turned-screenwriter is famously, and unusually, hands-on in his management style, to the point where his name frequently came up in the Writers Guild of America’s recent, successful bid to enshrine staffing minimums in its latest contract. (There’s an exception for writers, like Sheridan and “The White Lotus” auteur Mike White, commissioned from the start to pen an entire season themselves.) Sheridan writes all the scripts for “Yellowstone” and its offshoots, as well as more recent launches like the first seasons of “Mayor of Kingstown” and the risible “Special Ops: Lioness.”
“Bass Reeves,” by contrast, is created and showrun by Chad Feehan (“Rectify,” “Ray Donovan”), with Sheridan solely serving in a producing capacity. (Even “Tulsa King,” the disappointing Sylvester Stallone showcase overseen by Terence Winter of “The Sopranos,” still credited Sheridan as its creator.) Based on the four episodes provided to critics, such delegation is a welcome improvement. “Bass Reeves” is recognizably of a piece with Sheridan’s filmography, while striking a tone and moving at a pace of its own. It’s a more sustainable execution of the power producer’s distinct vision — and, more importantly, a better one than some recent attempts.
Early on in his namesake series, one of Reeves’ new colleagues calls him “the most earnest man I have ever met.” It’s a fair assessment, and one that carries over to the season based on the first two parts of author Sidney Thompson’s trilogy tracing Reeves’ exploits. Oyelowo plays Reeves as a classical hero of grit and quiet dignity. Besides his skill as a marksman, Reeves’ defining traits are his Christian faith, devotion to family and a moral compass only strengthened by the horrors of captivity. The protagonist’s background and biography may suggest a revisionist take that caters to modern sensibilities, but “Bass Reeves” avoids either the gleeful retribution of “Django Unchained” or the overwhelming tragedy of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” to cite two high-profile instances of updating the genre.
This is not a criticism. “Bass Reeves” is straightforward, but its story is remarkable enough to not require much embellishment. The first episode acts as an origin story, opening with Bass riding into battle during the final days of the Civil War with his Confederate then-owner George Reeves (Shea Whigham). As the Union cements its victory, the action then turns to Bass’s harrowing escape into the West. Like many streaming shows, “Bass Reeves” uses its premiere more as a standalone prequel than a pilot, since viewers can instantly learn what happens next. Only in the next installment, and after a decade-long time jump, is Bass awarded the badge that makes him such a singular presence in America’s past. In this steady progression, there’s a notable lack of the soapy theatrics that define other Sheridan shows. Reeves’ conflict is more internal: that of a man the law once considered property given the power to enforce a system which, while improved, is still often unjust. Yet this struggle never becomes the central focus of the season. Much like the multiplicity of Black and Indigenous characters in a genre that rarely privileges their point of view, the contradictions of Bass’ new career form the backdrop to his main adventures.
Oyelowo’s pure-hearted sincerity is counterbalanced by the supporting performances that surround him. Bass’ call to action after years as a humble farmer — another heroic trope straight out of Joseph Campbell — comes from Deputy Marshall Sherrill Lynn, a hardened cynic played by a perfectly deployed Dennis Quaid. Having shed his “Full Circle” rat tail, the newly announced Fox Nation contributor could be an indirect nod to a conservative audience, but he’s too effective as a wild-eyed eccentric not to appreciate. Like Whigham, he’s also used sparingly, appearing in just one episode of the initial four; so is Donald Sutherland as Reeves’ new boss, a judge working to impose order on the edge of civilization.
Not all of Reeves’ companions are irascible older white men. The antihero role Reeves himself avoids instead falls to Billy Crow (Forrest Goodluck), a Native outlaw intrigued by Bass’ unlikely path to law enforcement. But while Crow is an intriguing presence, you never wish he were driving the show. Perhaps future installments of “Lawmen,” which is structured to focus on a different subject each season, will center more morally ambiguous authority figures. As an introduction, “Bass Reeves” makes the convincing argument that the Western can expand without a total reimagining.
The first two episodes of “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” will premiere on Paramount+ on Nov. 5, with remaining episodes streaming weekly on Sundays.
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