Bass Reeves has one hell of a story. Born into slavery in Arkansas, he was forced by his owner to fight on the Confederate side of the Civil War. He escaped — legend has it, he beat up his owner over a card game and ran off — and lived for years in the Indian Territory. He eventually became the first Black man to wear a U.S. Marshal badge west of the Missisippi, and finished his career with thousands of arrests. And, depending on which version of pop culture history you believe, he may have been the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
It’s a hell of a story that’s been told in brief on a number of TV shows in recent years. HBO’s Watchmen began its masterful nine-episode season with a fake silent movie about Reeves. Colman Domingo played him in an episode of the NBC time travel drama Timeless. Arrowverse regular David Ramsey played him in an episode of Legends of Tomorrow. And Mark Gagliardi became incredibly inebriated, even by Drunk History standards, while telling Derek Waters about Reeves in a 2015 episode.
But Reeves’ story is dramatic and wild enough to deserve a longer scripted treatment, which the latest entry in Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan’s empire attempts to provide. The Paramount+ miniseries Lawmen: Bass Reeves stars David Oyelowo as Reeves, and follows his entire career, from his reluctant days in the Confederacy through his time as one of the most feared men in the Wild West.
This is the first Sheridan-produced show that he didn’t also create or co-create, with that job instead falling to Ray Donovan and Rectify vet Chad Feehan. But it fits the general vibe of all the ones that have Sheridan’s name popping up more frequently in the opening credits. It’s almost proudly old-fashioned in the way it tells its stories, operating under the philosophy that if you like this sort of thing, you’ll like this sort of thing.
In this case, though, the very premise of the show finds itself at odds with the Sheridan house style. David Oyelowo is charismatic and appealingly vulnerable. But through the first four episodes, Lawmen: Bass Reeves seems wary of reckoning with the aspects of its hero’s life that makes him a worthy subject to headline a new show.
After an opening sequence set during the war — with Shea Whigham spitting his usual fire as Bass’ mean drunk of an owner, George — Lawmen keeps leaping forward in time. We get a brief glimpse of his life among the Seminole, then zip through the years he was attempting to be an Oklahoma farmer to provide for wife Jennie (Lauren E. Banks) and their kids, before the second episode introduces Dennis Quaid(*) as Sherrill Lynn, the Marshal who recruits Bass.
(*) Sheridan remains a champ at getting notable actors of a certain age to appear on his shows, from Kevin Costner in Yellowstone (at least for a few more episodes), Sylvester Stallone in Tulsa King, Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren in 1923, and, here, Oyelowo, Quaid, Donald Sutherland (as Judge Palmer, who swears Bass into the Marshals service), and Barry Pepper (as a Confederate soldier whose path keeps crossing Bass’s).
Linn dubs Bass “the most earnest man I have ever met,” but Lawmen is perhaps too earnest. After the brutal Civil War segment, race becomes something of a secondary issue. Judge Palmer admits that he likes the idea of deputizing a Black man — mainly because he thinks the Natives may be more likely to listen to him than to someone who looks like Sherrill Lynn — and on a couple of occasions, some scoundrel will refer to Bass as a “Black bastard.” Beyond that, though, the show doesn’t attempt to present any ways in which the color of its hero’s skin creates problems for him, even mildly. When he enters bars in towns he’s never been to before, nobody seems surprised to see the tin star pinned to his chest, nobody acts less willing to listen to him than they would to a white Marshal, or anything. He’s just another cop, perhaps because that makes it easier to make this function like every other Western about a good man who’s quick on the draw.
This might also be the justification for the other way that Lawmen seems shy about race. The series opens with Bass being forced, under threat of death, to fight on the side of an army that wants to keep him in chains. (When another Black man asks why he would help the Confederacy, Bass says, “I’d rather be shot in the face than in the back.”) But at no point does it try to draw a parallel between that and Bass voluntarily joining a profession that disproportionately targets non-white people like him, or his eventual sidekick(*) Billy Crow (Forrest Goodluck). Right before he meets Judge Palmer for the first time, Bass winds up on a courthouse bench next to a terrified young Black man being tried for murder, in a case that sounds a lot more like a tragic accident that happened after the starving kid stole some food from a man who wanted it back. Bass tries in vain to speak up for the defendant with the judge, but it seems less like him recognizing that the system is rigged than him demonstrating the same level of empathy he offers to almost everyone he meets.
(*) If you’re buying into the notion that Bass is the real Lone Ranger, then Billy — a slick reformed thief who favors nice suits and hats — could be read as a much less stereotypical version of Tonto.
The homefront plots about Jennie and daughter Sally (Demi Singleton) mostly feel undercooked(*), but one of them involves Edwin Jones (Grantham Coleman), a Black crusader trying to lift his people up from the racism that surrounds them. Maybe his path will cross with Bass later in the season, and he’ll at least attempt to point out the compromises inherent in Bass’s chosen profession. The issue, though, isn’t so much that Bass isn’t aware of this, but that Lawmen isn’t interested in the idea, which could get in the way of all the gunslinging fun.
(*) They’re not helped by the show’s frequent jumps forward in time. We already feel like we’re racing past important moments in Bass’s career, but it’s even harder for the family stories to make an impression when so much ground is skipped over between episodes. It’s easier to chronicle the bulk of an adult life across a season of television than it is to squeeze everything notable into a two-hour movie, but the approach taken here is too disjointed.
But the gunslinging and other action beats are functional at best. Good with his sidearm as Bass is, he’s at his most entertaining here when he’s battling outlaws with his brains rather than his quick-twitch reflexes, like a gambit where he poses as a timid beggar to gain access to the home of two outlaws whose mother doesn’t see him as a threat.
Then again, many of the Sheridan-produced shows seem similarly content to play passable versions of the hits within a particular subgenre, and not worry about any complications that could get in the way of that. Not even if the complications could be more interesting than the karaoke. And that’s really where Lawmen: Bass Reeves is a disappointment, even if I enjoyed it more than most of the recent Sheridans. This is, again, one hell of a story, but it’s one hell of a story specifically because of factors that this telling of it glosses over in favor of mediocre versions of familiar material, which in many scenes wouldn’t play any differently with a white hero.
While introducing Bass to the tricks of the trade, Linn says, “Out here, there ain’t no laws. Only outlaws.” Dennis Quaid has been in enough Westerns (most notably Wyatt Earp) that this job may have finally gotten his punchcard filled for a free pair of spurs. It’s a line he could have delivered in his sleep, but he doesn’t. Nobody on screen is giving a half-hearted effort or going through the motions. On the whole, though, Lawmen: Bass Reeves doesn’t get nearly close enough to connecting with what’s so special about its title character.
The first two episodes of Lawmen: Bass Reeves are streaming now on Paramount+, with additional installments releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first four.