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Circle the wagons ... 1883 on Paramount+ is out to win the West, again

A former colleague who collected typewriters gave me a Hermes 3000 after I mentioned I was a Larry McMurtry fan.

Although duck egg blue, not pale green, the machine was the same model the Texan author used (he used two, in fact) to write his 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove. McMurtry even named-checked his Hermes 3000 in his acceptance speech after winning the 2006 best screenplay Golden Globe for Brokeback Mountain (written by Annie Proulx).

I've never attempted to use my natty little Hermes to write a shopping list, let alone a novel or screenplay; all my typing takes place on a heavy slab of black plastic with which I share an uneasy relationship.

Taylor Sheridan's new series 1883, starring Faith Hill, shares much of its DNA with Lonesome Dove. Picture: Paramount+

Taylor Sheridan's new series 1883, starring Faith Hill, shares much of its DNA with Lonesome Dove. Picture: Paramount+

My new computer is very fast and powerful and completely too pimped-out for someone who can list the often successful sending and receiving of emails as a career achievement on their LinkedIn account (which I don't recall ever setting up).

I suspect my computer knows its impressive abilities are being wasted under current management. As if to warn me of its simmering, untapped potential, its keyboard lights up in lurid red each time I prise open its screen. Also, to the right of its row of digits, there's something called a 'Nitro' button. I'm too scared to press the Nitro button lest the resentful piece of hardware launch into a 10-second countdown or, as happened to Jeff Bridges in Tron, suck me into its gridded innards (where I could maybe work in the email room).

Given all this, I tend to keep my baleful laptop out of sight, whereas my low-tech typewriter sits cheerily on my low-tech wooden chest of drawers housing my low-tech undies.

As a result, I can pass the Hermes several times a day, never failing to think of McMurtry (and, creepily enough, given the underwear, that former colleague).

McMurtry died aged 84 in March. His passing certainly didn't go unnoticed but as one of the most versatile chroniclers of the American condition (Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show), those contemporaneous farewells seemed a little muted, as if the entire planet was preoccupied with something else...

McMurtry was always slightly uncomfortable with the success of Lonesome Dove (which began life as a languishing screenplay co-written with Peter Bogdanovich), especially after the novel was adapted into the 1989 CBS miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, who play a pair of former Texas Rangers on a crazy-brave cattle drive all the way from the Lone Star State to Montana.

Although there was quixotic inspiration to McMurtry's tale, he never considered Lonesome Dove a particularly great literary achievement but that didn't bother the 26 million American households which tuned in to the miniseries, making it one of the most successful enterprises in TV history.

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Taylor Sheridan's new series 1883, now streaming on Paramount+, shares much of its DNA with Lonesome Dove but you get the feeling he shares none of McMurtry's apprehension about the quality of his latest product.

Nor should he, it's a great show, especially if you like your Manifest Destiny delivered with an unflinching devotion to the primacy of family as personified by a matriarch and patriarch played by the reigning power couple of American country music.

An "origin story" explaining how Kevin Costner's Dutton clan came to establish their eponymous ranch in Sheridan's hugely popular Yellowstone series (Stan), 1883 stars Tim McGraw as James Dutton and his real-life wife, Faith Hill, as his on-screen wife, Margaret, who sign up to help chaperone a party of hapless German immigrants from Texas to the promised land of Montana.

Country music power couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw in 1883. Picture: Paramount+

Country music power couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw in 1883. Picture: Paramount+

Collectively, McGraw and Hill have sold 120 million albums and their joint Soul2Soul II show of 2006 remains the United States' highest-grossing country music tour of all time, so it's no surprise the premiere of MTV Studios' 1883 drew monster numbers in that country. Close to five million people circled their wagons on December 19 to learn how Sheridan would expand his universe, handing 1883 the biggest launch for a new "cable" show since 2015. And it would be a fair bet almost every one of those 4.9 million viewers were Yellowstone fans, its season-four opening earlier this year attracting a 14.7 million-strong audience - the kind of ratings once thought impossible to conjure away from network television.

With each episode reportedly costing $10 million (look out for the Tom Hanks cameo!), 1883 is all deeply satisfying big sky grandeur coupled with the inherently compelling nature of a dangerous journey, especially for a family. From the dramatic opening scenes which hint at looming disaster for the travellers, we're hooked, but unlike the game-changing sophistication brought to the Western genre by HBO's Deadwood thanks to David Milch's sublime screenplay, we're dealing with a much blunter instrument here, a Winchester butt between the eyes ... family, legacy, family, family, legacy.

Not that 1883 doesn't come with nuance. As a Civil War veteran with nothing left to lose, Sam Elliott is at his best playing the leader of the expedition and supplies much-needed tradesman ballast to the performances. He still sports Hollywood's greatest moustache, but, at 77, brings a vulnerability to this role (he's also appearing in Stan's very silly MacGruber) he couldn't physically muster in Mask or Tombstone or The Big Lebowski.

Sam Elliott plays a Civil War veteran with nothing left to lose. Picture: Paramount+

Sam Elliott plays a Civil War veteran with nothing left to lose. Picture: Paramount+

As 1883 winds towards that American land of milk and honey, it may well serve to divide the critics just as Yellowstone has done. There's almost a hint of red-state, blue-state priggishness in the way Sheridan's stable is virtually ignored by some components of the chattering classes yet claims huge swathes of devoted fans from the heart of what remains a nation as violent and wounded as the one which staggered away from battlefields of that internecine conflict between 1861 and 1865 (not to mention the one between 2017 and 2021).

A mischievous viewer might even think Sheridan is passing comment on the culture wars through the introductory monologue delivered by James Dutton's daughter Elsa, played by Isabel May.

"Some call it the American desert, others the great plains, but those phrases were invented by professors at universities, surrounded by the illusion of order and the fantasy of right and wrong ... to know it you must walk it, bleed into its dirt, drown in its rivers ..."

If only Larry McMurtry were still around to adjudicate.

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This story Circle the wagons ... 1883 is out to win the West, again first appeared on The Canberra Times.