Lawmen: Bass Reeves TV Review

David Oyelowo leads this Yellowstone spin-off series that is part biopic and part procedural.

PLOT: The untold story of the most legendary lawman in the Old West, Bass Reeves. The eight-episode original series follows the journey of Reeves and his rise from enslavement to law enforcement as the first Black U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi. Despite arresting over 3,000 outlaws during the course of his career, the weight of the badge was heavy, and he wrestled with its moral and spiritual cost to his beloved family.

REVIEW: Bass Reeves is not nearly as recognizable of a name as it should be. In the annals of American history, we know Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and countless other iconic figures, but Bass Reeves may be the most impressive of them all. A key figure in recent series, including DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, Bass Reeves’ tale is tailor-made for a cinematic adaptation. Originally announced as a spin-off to Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone prequel 1883, Lawmen: Bass Reeves is the first entry in an anthology looking at the lives and careers of the most iconic heroes ever. Taking place from the Civil War through the events of 1883 and beyond, Lawmen: Bass Reeves is a biopic of the legendary marshal and a crime procedural set in the Old West. As both a chapter in the larger Yellowstone cinematic universe and a standalone limited series, this is an exciting, emotional, and violent look at a story that has long deserved to be seen by wide audiences.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Based on two books by Sidney Thompson, Lawmen: Bass Reeves unfolds across eight episodes that chronicle the title marshal’s life from the Civil War through the end of the nineteenth century. The majority of the footage in the trailer for the series focuses on Reeves’ days as a lawman, but the series goes back to his life as a slave and the series of events that led him to become a fabled hero. The first two episodes are spread across the twelve years between the American Civil War and Reeves’ appointment as a marshal. David Oyelowo undergoes a believable transformation from a begrudging Confederate soldier to a runaway slave after he beats his master, Colonel George R. Reeves (Shea Whigham). During the war, Bass Reeves encounters Esau Pierce (Barry Pepper), a brutal soldier he will meet again throughout the series. When Colonel Reeves tricks Bass during a card game for his freedom, Bass leaves his wife Jennie (Lauren E. Banks) and hides amongst the Cherokee and Seminole, learning their language and ways. By the end of the first episode, Bass Reeves is nowhere near the character we see in the trailers.

What is presented in the opening chapter is a harrowing and brutal look at Bass Reeves’ life as a slave and newly free man, much different than what is often depicted on the small screen. Thanks to David Oyelowo’s layered performance and Lauren E. Banks’ touching portrayal of his wife, the second episode dives more into their life in the years from emancipation to the badge. In this section, Bass joins up with Marshal Sherill Lynn (Dennis Quaid), who wants to leverage Bass’ bilingual skills. Here, we begin to see Reeves’ true nature as a righteous defender of the law while also seeing his growing family, including his eldest daughter, Sally (King Richard star Demi Singleton). From there, Bass earns a reputation and is deputized by Judge Isaac Parker (Donald Sutherland). The series follows Bass’ career, starting with posse man Garrett Montgomery (Garrett Hedlund) and eventually Billy Crow (Forrest Goodluck) as he brings justice to the Arkansas territory.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoFxVobU5TY

While the first episodes involve slavery and the end of the Civil War, racism is interestingly danced around in the first episodes of Lawmen: Bass Reeves. The fact that Reeves himself was Black factors into the story, but not nearly as much as I expected it to. Nevertheless, the Reeves family contends with making a life for themselves in the underdeveloped parts of America where lawlessness ran rampant. The fact that Reeves survived without significant physical injuries is amazing, but the series still focuses on the psychological toll he and his family endured. The series is chock full of violence with a significant body count throughout. Even with all of the Western genre action sequences, Lawmen: Bass Reeves plays more like a biopic than a potboiler. Aside from the excellent performances from Oyelowo and Banks, the supporting cast is all quite good, especially Dennis Quaid and Garrett Hedlund, who lean into their roles more than they usually do. Donald Sutherland, in a very minor part, is also his usual excellent self.

Despite Taylor Sheridan’s name and the association with Yellowstone plastered across all of the marketing material for this series, Lawmen: Bass Reeves shares no direct connection with the Paramount franchise. While set in the same time period as 1883, Lawmen does not boast Taylor Sheridan as a director or writer on any of the eight episodes. Five episodes are helmed by Christina Alexandra Voros, who directed eight episodes of Yellowstone and four episodes of 1883, bringing a visual consistency between the three series. The remaining three chapters were directed by Damian Marcano (American Gigolo, Winning Time). Lawmen: Bass Reeves was created by Chad Feehan (Ray Donovan, Banshee), who scripted five episodes with Terence Anthony, Jacob Forman, K.C. Scott, Jewel Coronel, J. Todd Scott, and Ning Zhou. This series focuses less on the melodrama and soapy elements of the main Yellowstone franchise. Instead, it evokes the mythic nature of the American frontier by looking at a story overdue for such a sprawling adaptation. David Oyelowo also serves as executive producer, and this is clearly a passion project for him and everyone involved.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves is a solid first entry in what will be an interesting anthology chronicling any number of famed and infamous icons from the past. Bass Reeves is a fascinating character whose story is all but designed for a platform like this. However, the series still manages to fall into the constraints of a procedural form of storytelling, focusing on Reeves solving cases and catching bad guys. It does not venture too far into that side of things and benefits from the writers making sure the central focus of this season is showing the impact of Bass Reeves’ career on the United States but more on his family. At a short eight-episode run, Lawmen: Bass Reeves does not waste any time telling this story, even if it takes three episodes to find its footing. Lawmen is a great addition to Taylor Sheridan’s library of shows, but mostly because he lent his name to get it made rather than taking creative control for himself. Lawmen: Bass Reeves is a great Western tale that must be told and a very entertaining and illuminating experience.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves premieres on November 5th on Paramount+.

Source: JoBlo.com

About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a JoBlo.com editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been JoBlo.com's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.