Do rich men make poor fathers?
Being born to wealth might look like a sweet deal to the 99 percent, but television says otherwise.
The latest argument comes on Wednesday in the Paramount Network's new Montana-set drama, Yellowstone, which stars Kevin Costner as John Dutton, a wealthy and immensely powerful rancher who controls the largest contiguous ranch in the United States.
He's also a father who's only beginning to confront some of his own poor parenting choices, and he's hardly alone in having made some.
HBO's new Sunday drama Succession, recently renewed for a second season, depicts aging media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) as a cranky tyrant at war with his dysfunctional offspring. Showtime's Billions just wrapped up a third season in which billionaire Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Damian Lewis) was far less engaged with his two young sons than he was when we first met him, before his split from their mother, Lara (Malin Akerman). He may still brag that he has "two kids at home who think I can fly," but the way he's neglected them this season is another sign that he's not the same man it was once very hard not to like.
I'm a whole season behind on Fox's Empire, so do let me know if Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) has been transformed into a paternal role model in my absence. I'm guessing not.
And then there's FX's Trust. Donald Sutherland gave us an entertaining, even nuanced, portrait of J. Paul Getty, but the late billionaire's performance as both a father and a grandfather wasn't exactly the stuff that inspires Father's Day cards.
(Dear Granddad, thanks for — eventually — paying to ransom me and my remaining ear. We'll always have Italy.)
Costner at least gets to hang out with some of his adult kids on horseback when he's not overseeing his sprawling acreage from a helicopter.
Yellowstone, created, written and directed — all 10 episodes — by Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Sicario), is there for all of us who can't resist the Dances with Wolves and Wyatt Earp star on a horse, near a horse, or even, as in the beginning of Wednesday's two-hour premiere, saying a hard goodbye to one.
It also could be there for those who miss the wide open spaces of the Wyoming-set Longmire, the A&E/Netflix series that, like Yellowstone, frequently touched on the complex relationships between the people of a Native American reservation and their neighbors and on the challenges that development presents in the 21st-century West.
Paramount, which you'll find on the cable channel formerly known as Spike (and before that, TNN), launched under its new name in January. Its originals so far have included Waco, a mini-series about the 1993 standoff with the David Koresh-led Branch Davidians; an ill-considered reboot of Heathers that was first postponed, then taken off the schedule; and American Woman, a 1970s-set dramedy that premiered June 7 and that stars Alicia Silverstone as a Beverly Hills divorcée fighting to keep a roof over her kids' heads.
Yellowstone, filmed in Montana and Utah, feels like an effort to establish a brand, so it's probably appropriate that it's set on a ranch where not only the cattle feel the heat of the iron.
Costner's Dutton is a widower with three sons — played by Wes Bentley (American Horror Story), Luke Grimes (True Blood), and Dave Annable (Brothers & Sisters) — seemingly good enough guys who have to varying degrees disappointed him, and a daughter — played by Kelly Reilly (True Detective) — who's a hotshot banker with a hot mess of a personal life and her daddy's apparently unwavering support.
Dutton's also a grandfather longing to know his only grandson, Tate (Brecken Merrill), who lives on the Broken Rock reservation with his parents, Dutton's estranged son Kayce (Grimes) and his schoolteacher wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille).
Kayce's barely making a living breaking horses, but he's so far winning fatherhood. He's a hands-on parent whose young son already exhibits the confidence and resourcefulness Dutton finds lacking in Kayce's brothers, Jamie (Bentley), a lawyer with political ambitions, and Lee (Annable), who's devoted his life to helping run the family ranch.
It's hard not to think, seeing Dutton pick at them, that they, too, may once have been as sure of themselves as Tate, who pulls off something in a later episode that won my undying admiration.
Jamie, who exercises his law license trying to prevent efforts to encroach on the Duttons' massive holdings, needs to think more like a landowner, not just a lawyer, complains his father. Lee, helping his father deliver a calf out on the range, is too much cowboy, too little rancher.
Of the sons, only Kayce, the one who left (and who at some point became a war hero) has earned his father's grudging respect, and Kayce wants no part of it.
Their sister, Beth (Reilly), meanwhile, wants no part of horses, choosing instead to torture Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), a possibly too loyal ranch hand whose mean streak doesn't extend to Beth, whom he unwisely adores.
As an Easterner, I can't comment with authority on how the Duttons' interests align with the rest of ours. Costner's a master at engendering sympathy for potentially unsympathetic positions — did I mention how good he looks on a horse? — and Yellowstone isn't subtle in setting up the opposition, casting Danny Huston (Magic City) as an unlikable developer who wants to put a housing development at the edge of Dutton's extraordinarily large backyard and Gil Birmingham as Thomas Rainwater, the new leader of the Broken Rock reservation and a man whose decision to challenge Dutton could be as much about ego as about righting history's wrongs.
But then there's Rip, who wouldn't be out of place as a mob enforcer, and who willingly handles Dutton's dirty work.
It's clear that the Duttons are enormously rich, but unlike Billions or Succession, with their frequent displays of affluence porn, Yellowstone is more interested in the power than the money.
"Leverage is knowing that if someone had all the money in the world, this is what they'd buy," Dutton says. It's leverage that requires an awful lot of outside support, starting with the governor of Montana (Wendy Moniz), whose interest in her state's largest landowner may involve more than campaign contributions.
Watching a man, even a man who looks terrific on a horse, trying to hold on to what he already has can take Yellowstone only so far. It's the son who got away who could help Dutton stay interesting, and maybe even teach him something about fatherhood.
When Kayce, who doesn't quite fit into the life he's chosen or the one he's left behind, talks to Monica about letting his father get to know their son, she reminds him that what goes around comes around, and that they, too, will someday lose their son to a wife and children, "and all we'll get is little fixes" of their grandchildren.
"That's the meanest thing you've ever said to me," he replies.