For years, Taylor Sheridan has been restyling the Old West for Paramount’s ever-expanding roster of gunslinging dramas—both in the murky present (“Yellowstone”) and the grimy past (“1883,” “1923”). But now, the prolific geezer-whisperer has stretched the frontiers of his Western yarns beyond the multigenerational dramas of the Dutton family and into the realm of real life with “Lawmen: Bass Reeves,” a strong (if ponderous) exploration of America’s first Black sheriff.
Where the pulse of mainstream American culture venerated the cultural image of the white cowboy—Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday—Bass Reeves was the first, and one of the only, Black exemplars of the form permitted to enter the wider consciousness (and even then, only recently by historians and shows like HBO’s “Watchmen”). He was a figure of mythic proportions, even in real life: an escaped slave turned legendary lawman who apprehended more than three thousand outlaws in his 32 years as a US Marshal. The legend goes that he’d quote Bible passages to his charges despite never learning to read or write; some of them would even convert. Other legends claim he’s the model for the Lone Ranger.
Here, in the Sheridan-produced “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” (so-called presumably to tee up miniseries about other iconic officers of the American West), we chart his trajectory from an unwilling participant in the wrong side of the Civil War to one of America’s first (and best) dispensers of justice. Played by David Oyelowo (who also executive produces), Reeves is a figure of titanic scope, nonetheless with humble beginnings: in the hourlong first episode, we see him in the thrall of his master, Confederate General George Reeves (Shea Whigham, always a reliable go-to for historical monsters), forced to fight a doomed battle lest he definitively die if he deserts. Nonetheless, George chooses to abandon the fight and bring himself and Bass back to their plantation, where Bass’ wife, Jennie (Lauren E. Banks), awaits him. Drunk and admiring of Bass’ fighting ability, George teases his freedom if he beats him in a game of cards. The game, as always for Black folk in America, is rigged, but even if George can control the cards, he can’t control the direction of Bass’ fists.
Thus begins a desperate flight to freedom for Bass in a stark, hourlong opener that serves as something of Reeves’ origin story. He runs from slave catchers and spends some time in Seminole Nation learning the language and helping out a desperate widow (Margot Bingham) and her son (Riley Looc) before tragedy brings him back to his beloved and humble life of farming. Several years and as many failed harvests later, a fateful meeting with a surly Marshal (Dennis Quaid’s gravelly, vulgar Sherrill Lynn) convinces him of his best destiny: cleaning up the lawless West at the barrel of a rifle.
And so it goes, as the rest of the first four episodes—all directed and shot with crisp, if flat, digital photography by Christina Alexandra Voros—chart Bass’ first tests of his resolve in the job. Oyelowo infuses him with a kind of stoic cool, a determined countenance hiding under a soup-catcher mustache, “Shaft” by way of “Gunsmoke.” He’s as quick with a bone-dry witticism as he is with a gun, but he’s no quipster; Reeves carries himself with the weight of his people’s history, not to mention his own. He takes his job seriously and occasionally relishes in how good at it he is—he’s even skilled at undercover work, scheming ways to get his marks in cuffs while they lie passed-out drunk.
But one of the most interesting wrinkles in the show’s fabric, and one that hopefully develops as the season progresses, is the moral and spiritual cost that comes with engaging in such work. “This kind of work exacts a toll,” intones Judge Parker (Donald Sutherland, sporting an expertly-manicured beard designed for Old West photos) to Bass when he offers him the job; Reeves seems to pay most especially by the time he loses with his family while he’s away. Yes, it’s great fun to see him chasing baddies on horseback or talking his way out of tense situations. But all the while, we cut back to Jennie holding on tight to her household, keeping a close eye on her eldest daughter (Dawn Singleton) and the boy (Lonnie Chavis) obviously courting her, and more. Every time Reeves returns to them, there’s another child on the way; someone’s older, something’s changed. He witnesses the ugliness of the world to protect them from it.
It’s all so assured and patient, punctuated with bursts of genuinely exciting Western action. Oyelowo is surrounded by a welcome cast of good ol’ boys, from Barry Pepper’s unhinged Confederate to Quaid’s wild-eyed Marshal, who serves as his first erstwhile partner. Garrett Hedlund and Forrest Goodluck show up as fellow partners for Reeves in his early career, each starting on one side of the law and flirting with the other by the end. (Especially welcome are stalwart character actors like Dale Dickey and Rob Morgan, who spice up the fourth episode with particular complications on the black-and-white morality Reeves is tasked to impart upon the changing West.)
While it occasionally falls into the trappings well-worn by the Sheridan Industrial Complex, “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” is like a thrilling throwback to the Western adventures of old, centering one of American history’s most lauded Black heroes. Let’s hope this show is successful enough for other “Lawmen” shows to crop up. Who’s next? “Lawmen: Wyatt Earp”? “Lawmen: Charlie Bassett”? “Lawmen: Giuseppe Petrosino”?
The first four episodes were screened for review. “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” premieres November 5th on Paramount+.