The Lawman: Bass Reeves is being sold to audiences as a series from Taylor Sheridan because Taylor Sheridan is the guy behind television’s biggest series, Yellowstone, as well as two spin-offs (and counting), and various other shows. Taylor Sheridan has been stretched thin, and if the first half of the final season of Yellowstone and the entire season of Lioness is any indication, it’s badly affected his writing.
However, the good news for Bass Reeves is that it has a writers’ room, and better still, Taylor Sheridan is not in it. He is not credited as a creator or writer of any episode in the series. Chad Feehan is credited as the showrunner, and there is diversity in both the writers’ room and in the director’s chair.
Here’s the wrinkle: The Lawman: Bass Reeves nevertheless feels a lot like a Taylor Sheridan television series, and not just because it’s a Western. It’s also because it’s a miserable Western, more along the lines of the spin-offs 1883 and 1923. The spin-offs are solid, arguably better than Yellowstone even at its height; they are brilliantly cast and they are bleak. Everything that could go wrong in the lives of the characters goes horribly, terribly, painfully wrong. And then, somehow, it gets worse.
Bass Reeves is no exception, but it doesn’t make it any less compelling. The fact that it’s based on the first former enslaved person to serve as an American lawman, who was actually the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, makes it even more compelling. But also bleak. Don’t, for example, get attached to the young, adorable child in the premiere; he will die. It will be heartbreaking.
Most of the characters are the worst possible versions of themselves, such as Bass Reeves’ master, George Reeves, played with racist ferocity by Shea Whigham. In 1862, George Reeves forces Bass to fight alongside him in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. Afterward, Bass doesn’t win his freedom so much as he takes it and then hides out among the Choctaw until the Civil War ends.
Doing so is a blessing, because once Bass is reunited with his wife, Jennie (Lauren E. Banks), he proves to be terrible at farming. However, his ability to speak Choctaw is handy when a local lawman, Sherrill Lynn (Dennis Quaid), needs someone who speaks the language to help him serve a warrant. The relationship between Bass and Sherrill is not a particularly good one — Bass loathes the way Sherill dehumanizes indigenous people — but that relationship eventually lands Reeves a job as a deputy U.S. Marshal. Dramatized as it is, this is all more or less true.
I don’t understand it, but whatever part of a middle-aged guy’s lizard brain that lights up when there is a Western on TV goes absolutely apeshit during Bass Reeves. It’s a Western! It’s not just history but little-known history! And the performances are spectacular, starting with David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves himself. Dennis Quaid — who has Wyatt Earp and The Alamo on his CV already — can play the role in his sleep, and from what we’ve seen of Barry Pepper, so far, he’s going to be a helluva scene stealer.
I’m not saying it’s great television, but it’s good television, and for fans of Westerns, it more than capably scratches that itch. Better still, it’s a Taylor Sheridan series written by a writers’ room without Taylor Sheridan in it.