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The shutout of Paramount Network’s Yellowstone was, for many, the most egregious “snub” of the July 12 Emmy nominations announcement. The Montana-set neo-Western created by Taylor Sheridan (who, in addition to writing the episodes occasionally directs and appears as a supporting character) was a massive ratings hit from the outset, particularly in the heartland, but had not been seen as a serious awards contender for its first three seasons, earning just a single Emmy nom, in 2021, for production design.
But during COVID lockdown, many in the entertainment industry and the media that covers it began to catch up with the Kevin Costner starrer and credit it for being very well done. And when, in early 2022, the show’s fourth season — the finale of which attracted more than 11 million viewers before streaming — was nominated for the top SAG and PGA awards, and its backers began to mount an aggressive campaign, it seemed like its Emmy fortunes might soon turn around. At the end of the day, though, Sheridan’s prequel 1883, which streams on Paramount+ and features country music superstars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, ended up garnering three noms (two for cinematography, one for music), three more than Yellowstone.
After the snub, the Daily Mail described Yellowstone as “anti-woke,” which is as superficial as its other descriptor: “red-state Succession.” There are certainly similarities between the dramas — the HBO series sees the adult children of a Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul vying for control of his empire amid seismic industry shifts, while Yellowstone depicts a similar family dynamic sparked by property ownership and an ever-increasing modernity that threatens its characters’ status quo. One may appear to capture the attention of tapped-in city viewers who recognize the Murdoch influence on its plotlines, while the other is a violent melodrama set in an environment that looks more familiar to those living away from the coasts.
But “anti-woke”? That culture-war buzzword would be just as applicable to Succession — and it’s inaccurate, even if the images of modern-day cowboys conjure some notion of “the real America” in the flyover states. Yellowstone‘s portrayal of land-use politics in the western U.S. — particularly their effect on the Native American characters — is a Trojan horse, a political subtext hiding within a melodrama. That tactic is what TV does best; other examples this season included Netflix 14-time nominee Squid Game, in which a deadly competition is a thinly veiled critique on capitalism; HBO’s The White Lotus (20 noms), which satirized (like Succession) the ultra-rich and their cringey, neoliberal sensibilities; and Apple TV+’s Severance (14 noms), a puzzle-box mystery about the lack of humanity at the center of corporate culture.
What sets Yellowstone apart from those and other nominated series is that it doesn’t get endless coverage on pop-culture websites (Sheridan’s media reticence hasn’t helped), unlike Stranger Things and Euphoria with their Gen-Z audiences generating memes in real time. (Even finding the show is challenging: Some Yellowstone seasons live on Paramount Network, not Paramount+, and others on Peacock.) It does share similarities with the New Mexico and Missouri-set Better Call Saul and Ozark, respectively, proving its locations shouldn’t turn off Emmy voters.
With so much choice — FX’s annual count of shows across streaming, cable and broadcast identified a record 559 English-language series in 2021 — the TV landscape has become fractured. The algorithmic design of streamers, through which many viewers watch linear shows, reward viewers with content similar to what they’ve already consumed. That makes Yellowstone such a marvel: Any show that can pull in more than 10 million viewers seems like an outlier. (Compare Yellowstone‘s season finale with Succession‘s: HBO says the Dec. 21 third-season conclusion was its most watched yet, bringing in 1.7 million viewers across all platforms in same-day viewing, a mere fraction of Yellowstone‘s numbers.)
TV is no longer a monocultural medium. Gone are the days when Maude’s abortion and Ellen’s coming out extended the boundaries of what could be seen and talked about on air. The politically polarized debates on All in the Family can be found 24/7 on Twitter, where anyone can join in. The “very special episode” trope that used to surface hot-button topics to the masses are no more — and even if there were watercoolers to gather around in this never-ending pandemic, good luck finding someone else in the office who’s watching what you’re watching.
Yellowstone‘s perceived “anti-wokeness” may simply be a misunderstanding of its nuance. Indeed, its audience is probably more ideologically diverse than most of the shows the Television Academy will honor in September.
Yellowstone (now in production on its fifth season) and its expanding universe (Sheridan is working on another prequel, 1923, with Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren starring) will continue to accrue new viewers. Paramount Network will continue to seriously target the TV Academy (the day after the Emmy noms, Yellowstone production company 101 Studios announced the hire of awards specialist Dani Weinstein as its new PR chief). And like a handful of other unconventional shows before it, including Breaking Bad and Schitt’s Creek, Yellowstone‘s best days at the Emmys may well come several seasons into its run.
This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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