YOUR WEEKLY BINGE: Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Whenever there is a hit show, there inevitably comes a flood of imitators and similarly themed shows trying to capitalize on the same success. For writer Taylor Sheridan, who already had established himself in 2016 for writing the screenplay for the Best Picture-nominated film Hell or High Water (which I LOVE), he exploded into another atmosphere with the success of Yellowstone, the Western soap opera starring Kevin Costner that proved to be alternative programming for those Americans longing for something on TV that felt more “traditional”, with a focus on the heartland and more relatable characters—mainly meaning white and rural. I’m totally not commenting on the political aspects of this, but Yellowstone proved to be a massive hit, so Sheridan followed it up with several other series cut from the same cloth (and targeting the same audience), including The Last Cowboy, Tulsa King, Mayor of Kingstown and two Yellowstone prequels, 1883 and 1923 (all available on Paramount+).

But Sheridan’s most recent creation, a series which premiered on Paramount+ in 2023, interestingly breaks from some of the familiar traditions of his previous series. Lawmen: Bass Reeves is an 8-part mini-series about the legendary frontier lawman Bass Reeves, starring David Oyelowo as the titular character. What makes Lawmen: Bass Reeves so good is it has all the great things about a Taylor Sheridan influence without too many of the negative ones. In this series, Sheridan only serves as an executive producer, as it is Chad Feehan who serves as series creator and writer. While the Sheridan themes are most definitely still there, Feehan expands the limitations of the traditional Sheridan universe to tell much deeper and more diverse stories. And, for the purposes of breaking from the cookie cutter Yellowstone imitators, Lawmen: Bass Reeves certainly stands apart.

That’s not to say that Feehan hasn’t included elements of Sheridan’s storytelling in the series. Lawmen: Bass Reeves is a full-on Western, set in the frontier, mainly the “lawless” Indian territories during the volatile Reconstruction years and Bass Reeves, played magnificently by Oyelowo, is the first Black U.S. Marshal in history, tasked with bringing in some of the most wanted men in the country. For those who love Westerns, in the style of Deadwood or 3:10 to Yuma, you will absolutely eat up this series, as it has all the action and atmosphere of your classic frontier Western.

But what sets Lawmen: Bass Reeves apart is it goes so much deeper. Feehan turns this series into a character study, which is probably what drew Oscar-nominated actor Oyelowo to the project. Reeves is a complicated, conflicted character, a former slave turned lawman, working for the white man, being asked to dole out justice for a country that once kept him in chains. Reeves is ultra-serious and takes his responsibilities to heart, often causing him to neglect his family, including his wife Jennie, brilliantly portrayed by Lauren E. Banks, and their five children. The glimpses of family life are brief but effective, painting the full picture of Reeves.

Also powerful are the first couple episodes, which focus on the years before Reeves wore a badge. Scenes of slavery are always difficult, and the slavery themes are never distant in this story, as they play a key role in who Reeves is and what motivates him.

The series is very somber, serious and lacking in humor, which is the only downside, but that is more than made up for in action and terrific performances. Dennis Quaid plays a fellow Marshal, the late great Donald Sutherland plays the judge who keeps Reeves busy (and morally conflicted), Barry Pepper plays Reeves’ nemesis, and Forrest Goodluck is excellent as Reeves’s sidekick, Billy Crow.

It is said that the true story of Bass Reeves and Billy Crow served as the inspiration for the characters Lone Ranger and Tonto, which alone makes this series worth watching. But there is so much more to it than legend, as this series is steeped in the history of this country, in all its glory and its horror, and the entire package is well worth your time.

Two notes: If you’re wondering why the title is Lawmen: Bass Reeves, as in plural, it’s because this is the first in an anthology series about famous lawmen in history. So, while there won’t be any other series about Bass Reeves in particular, keep an eye out for future series about other famous crime fighters.

Also, this is a Western, so, if you are an animal lover, you already know to be cautious, but there are some particularly gruesome moments, especially in the last episode, so don’t let me say I didn’t warn you.