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Cowboys Still Reign on TV
June 29, 2019  | By Mike Hughes

You might remember cowboys.

They used to be big in the movies. And on TV. And, perhaps, in our daydreams.

Bonanza ran 14 seasons; Gunsmoke ran 20, a record for a drama. In the fall of 1959, the three networks had 23 cowboy shows, from Bret Maverick and Bat Masterson to Have Gun, Will Travel.

And now? There are just two significant programs, and both are confined to cable.

Separated by a century, those two are still remarkably similar. And now they're at turning points:

–  The Son has its final episode Saturday (June 29).

–  Yellowstone recently opened its second season with strong ratings (by cable standards). Once you count everything (other networks for the opener, plus reruns), you have almost four million viewers. That's tiny by old standards. (One year, Gunsmoke averaged 43 percent of all homes with TV's; today, that would be 50 million homes.) But the Paramount Network seems happy.

– Indeed, Paramount has already renewed it for next season and has ordered a reality show from the same producer. The Last Cowboy will follow people in the world of professional reining and will create a three-day, $1 million Las Vegas event for its conclusion.

But what about people who think all westerns are the same? Right now, they're sort of right.

The two current shows are set a century apart – Yellowstone nowadays, Son based in 1916, but flashing back and forward – yet sometimes seem like twins.

Both are topped by movie stars – Kevin Costner (right), 64, in Yellowstone, Pierce Brosnan (top), 66, in Son.

Each star plays the unbending owner of a mega-ranch. Each has two sons – one is a lawyer who wears suits, the other is a rebel who wears boots and has a cross-cultural romance.

(In Yellowstone, Kayce (Luke Grimes, True Blood) prefers to be with his wife and son on her reservation. In Son, Pete (Henry Garrett, Poldark) remains obsessed with Maria Garcia (Paola Nuñez, The Purge) whose family was killed when his father roared in to seize their land.)

One slight difference: Yellowstone also has a daughter, scheming with developers who want chunks of her dad's empire; Son has a granddaughter, who's been transforming.

In flash-forwards, Jeanne Anne McCullough (played by Lois Smith, 88) is a matriarch, solemn and lonely. In the "present" (1916) portions, she's teen Jeannie and seemed pleasant enough – until last week.

That's when her grandfather Eli told her that she – not her brothers – will inherit control. She instantly snitched on her father, who planned to leave and testify against the family in court.

In short, this kid has inherited her grandpa's cold-eyed pragmatism. That shapes the finale, which bounces between three stories – young Eli, who grew up among the Comanche, old Eli in 1916, and, much later, old Jeanne Anne.

Each story is resolved forcefully (and sometimes violently) while staying true to these complex characters. Yes, we hate to see the number of major cowboy shows cut in half. But if The Sonmust depart, at least it does it well.


The Sons series finale, 9 p.m. ET Saturday on AMC

Yellowstone 10 p.m. ET, Wednesdays, Paramount (no episode July 3)

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