Yellowstone, a neo-Western drama, has achieved a massive following on both cable and streaming platforms, proving that audience ratings matter more than critical ones.
The term “soap opera” is often misused, but it accurately describes long-running, melodramatic TV serials with large casts, like Yellowstone.
Though Yellowstone may be criticized for its soap-ish qualities, its cinematic style, exceptional cast, and commitment to authentic storytelling about the modern American West make it a prestigious cable drama.
Yellowstone is the rare series that has been able to achieve a massive following on both cable and streaming platforms. The neo-Western first premiered on the Paramount Network in 2018 and has continued to air there ever since. Yellowstone marathons are huge hits with Paramount’s viewers (especially during Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July), and the series has additionally performed well on Peacock, while also proving to be insanely successful on CBS following its network premiere. It’s no wonder then that the various prequels and spin-offs also do well on Paramount’s own in-house streamer. But despite the numbers, this prestigious Western drama isn’t too far from being a soapy mess of its own.
In the same vein as Dallas, Yellowstone is, at its core, akin to a primetime soap opera. Despite the label’s often derogatory usage, that doesn’t make the series bad. Far from it. “Who Done It,” a 1980 episode of Dallas, is still the second most-watched prime-time telecast ever, falling right behind the M.A.S.H. series finale, proving that, in many cases, audience ratings matter infinitely more than critical ones. Nevertheless, the Taylor Sheridan-created series was a hit with audiences and has only grown since, beating out AMC’s The Walking Dead as the most-watched show on cable. What other modern soap opera (not to mention neo-Western) could do that?
‘Yellowstone’ Shares Many Traits of a Traditional Soap Opera
The term “soap opera” is often thrown around by folks who don’t know what it means, so allow us to elaborate. According to Oxford Reference, soap opera is a term (unrelated to the actual opera) used to describe a “long‐running, often daily or several‐times‐weekly serial on tv and radio.” Oftentimes, these sorts of narratives (which assemble particularly large casts) were plagued with endless melodrama and an over-reliance on sentimental decisions over strategic reason. If that isn’t Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly) in a nutshell…
The soap part of the term comes from the soap companies who, back in the 1950s, sponsored the radio dramas that were largely listened to by either housewives or elderly audiences. Because of this, soap operas became the moniker. Interestingly, other genres, such as Westerns and science-fiction stories, have their own “soap opera” subgenres, such as horse operas and space operas — the latter being a term later emphasized by the advent of Star Trek and Star Wars. Of course, soap operas primarily focus on passionate relationships and characters who, despite learning regular moral lessons, never seem to change much in the long run. (And if they do, it takes a long while.)
Early on, soap operas were well known for their concurrent storylines, following different characters through occasionally intersecting plotlines over the course of multiple episodes. Cliffhangers were also a staple of soaps, which rarely ended a season without one. Dallas was particularly well known for this, creating the “Who shot J.R.?” pop culture phenomenon after the third season ended with an unexpected cliffhanger. It’s because of this publicity stunt that the aforementioned Season 4 premiere raked in nearly 90 million viewers, according to The New York Times.
‘Yellowstone’ Prioritizes Melodrama Over Plot Development
Aside from Beth Dutton’s penchant for outdoor bathing, Yellowstone could be considered a prestige soap opera for more obvious reasons. For one thing, there’s always a half-dozen plots happening at once, all of which eventually intersect in the most dramatic way possible. On Yellowstone, that usually translates to multiple characters beating the living daylights out of one another (usually in front of a decent-sized audience), blowing someone or something up, or branding them with the Dutton Ranch’s infamous “Y.” Even the death of Lee Dutton (Dave Annable) in the very first episode feels awfully soap-ish, serving more as a plot device than a genuine spark for character development.
Of course, the series hasn’t exactly been a stranger to these particular criticisms. “Yellowstone is soapy trash that badly wants to be taken seriously” read an Entertainment Weekly headline just ahead of the 2018 series premiere. Elaborating further, the series was deemed “expensive to look at, painfully slow, lovingly violent, overly dedicated to uncovering the secret sadness lingering in the heart of murderous egomaniacs, generally pointless.” Yet, despite many critical reviews saying the same thing, audiences have disagreed — or, at the very least, they’ve embraced Yellowstone‘s soap-ish charm.
In many ways, Taylor Sheridan’s neo-Western epic, which some would describe as “cowboy fanfiction,” focuses more on the melodrama than anything else, especially in the show’s early years when everything — even the most basic lines of dialogue — felt like a life or death musing meant to make these cowpokes seem more well-read. Sheridan ought to have read a Longmire novel, Craig Johnson did it better. Sure, ranching is hard, and cowboys can die on the job, but at some point, it gets a bit ridiculous. Thankfully, the series has toned things down over time, opening the door for more interesting stories to be told centered more around ranch life than cowboys committing a crazy amount of felonies.
Years Later, the Duttons Never Seem to Change on ‘Yellowstone’
But if there was one big quality about Yellowstone that hits the soap opera bullseye, it’s that the series centers around a wealthy family, filled with folks who love and loathe each other. What set Dallas apart as a prime-time soap is the same thing that sets Yellowstone apart as a prestigious one now, the snobby family drama that always comes to a head without any real resolution. Only Yellowstone leans even further into the family drama. No wonder we can’t get through one dinner table scene without a Beth-centric freak-out.
How many times have Beth and Jamie (Wes Bentley) blown up at one another? How many times has she noted that she has him in her back pocket? Additionally, how often do Kayce (Luke Grimes) and Monica (Kelsey Asbille) fight over the Dutton Ranch, or about the type of man the latter is becoming? Formulaic is a word to describe it, another is soapy, and while Yellowstone certainly isn’t trash as some critics might’ve put it, it does share some commonalities with its horse/soap opera predecessors. At some point, the lack of character development gets sort of old, even if we do love a good brawl between Rip (Cole Hauser) and whoever gets in his way. As the erratic family drama continues, the only characters who receive any real and lasting development over the course of more than one season are the ranch hands.
Five seasons in, and John Dutton (Kevin Costner) remains largely unchanged. Beth is still barely functional (and “evil” as John called her way back in Season 1), Kayce is still mostly directionless, and Jamie continues to rig the game wherever (and however) he can get ahead politically. If you took a good and hard look at the Duttons in “Daybreak” (the pilot episode) and then watched the most recent episode of Season 5, you could almost skip the majority of the series. Of course, then you’d miss out on any actual character development in the form of the side characters, and even then, it’s mostly just Jefferson White‘s Jimmy.
Despite Its Soapiness, ‘Yellowstone’ Is Still Prestigious
The truth is, when we consider the definition of a soap opera, there are very few long-running television productions that don’t fit the bill. Nearly anything that once aired on The CW would qualify, as would countless other prestigious and acclaimed shows such as Succession. Though “soapy” is often used as a derogatory term, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take Yellowstone seriously as a cable drama. Admittedly, there are some serious criticisms to be had with the Taylor Sheridan series (and it’s nowhere near as good as prequels 1883 and 1923), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t prestige TV. Somehow, it still is.
The series’ cinematic style makes Yellowstone stand out among a plethora of TV Westerns (particularly of the neo-Western variety) as do its exceptional stars. Aside from the main cast (who are always knocking it out of the park), actors like Neil McDonough, Hugh Dillon, Q’orianka Kilcher, Walter C. Taylor III, James Jordan, Jacki Weaver, Will Patton, and even Sheridan himself raise the bar for the series, reminding us that this neo-Western has real grit. Sure, the plot has gotten a bit stale, and the characters don’t grow all too much, but there’s a reason that audiences continue to flock back every season. And no, it’s not just those serene landscapes.
The sheer talent involved, not to mention the production value (actually shooting in Montana helps), helps keep Yellowstone at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist, and popular with fans all across the country. The show’s resolve and commitment to telling complicated and somewhat Accelerator stories about the modern American West is what makes Sheridan’s flagship Paramount series stand out among a host of other soaps disguising themselves as prestigious dramas. Plus, who doesn’t love a good Western?