Next Sunday, November 13, is the premiere of season five of Yellowstone, the popular drama created by Taylor Sheridan, one of the leading filmmakers in the neo-Western revival in contemporary American cinema. We’re going to talk more about Sheridan later, but for now, let’s talk about Yellowstone, which averaged 11 million viewers in season four, with 9.3 million tuning in for the season finale earlier this year. In contrast, Succession drew 6.1 million total viewers for its season three finale in December 2021. Yellowstone premiered in the summer of 2018; by its fourth season finale in January 2022, it grew to be the #1 series on television across broadcast, cable, and premium cable in the key 18-49 and 25-54 demographics (this does not account for streaming-exclusive series, as streamers do not consistently or transparently report ratings). 


Yellowstone is about the Dutton family, headed by patriarch John Dutton III (Kevin Costner). His family owns the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, billed within the world of the show as the largest contiguous ranch in the US (in real life, this is the Waggoner Ranch in Texas, here is a great story about how f-cked up the Waggoners are, Yellowstone is basically a documentary). Sheridan’s conceit throughout the show and its prequels (1883 and the upcoming 1923, as well as the still developing 1883: The Bass Reeves Story spin-off, there is also a Texas-set spin-off inspired by the legendary Four Sixes Ranch, which Taylor Sheridan now owns) is to tell the story of America through the lens of the Dutton family. It’s a particularly Western view, and largely uncritical of the long-term effects of the Civil War (the Duttons move west after losing), and the way the show handles the conflict between white settlers and Native Americans, both historically and contemporarily, is problematic at best. But the idea is there, that the Duttons and their rise, and their problems, reflects America through the same eras. 

Like Yellowstone, Succession centers on a preeminent American family which can be extrapolated as an allegory for America itself. It’s a distinctly Eastern view, centered on urban metropolises and the problems arising from media and knowledge-based industries like technology and finance. The Roys are the Duttons’ neoliberal counterparts, a billionaire, multi-generational dynasty whose inheritance is based on shares, not acres. But both shows are essentially family dramas, and more importantly, they are both soap operas. Both shows depend on conflict between a patriarch and his children, both shows feature complex plots involving siblings trying to stake their claim, personally and publicly, amid their oppressive family expectations. Both families have black sheep children who make everything harder for everyone, and both families have conniving daughters who aren’t as smart as they think they are. Both shows are also fun to watch just to enjoy the spectacle of terrible people being terrible to each other, and the catharsis of seeing fabulously wealthy people portrayed as constantly, deeply, existentially unhappy. Both shows are predicated, to a certain degree, on middle class schadenfreude. 

My Succession/Yellowstone tweet 

With so many similarities between these two shows, why, then, are their Emmy hauls so disparate? Yellowstone has one nomination to its name, for production design in 2021. Succession has thirty nominations and thirteen wins to date, including two for Outstanding Drama Series (in 2020 and 2022). The answer is very simple: Yellowstone isn’t extraordinary. It is good, but in an era in which television is exceptional and there is too much good TV to ever recognize everything that deserves to be recognized, it’s not surprising that Yellowstone lags in awards recognition. Especially because the first season, consisting of nine episodes entirely directed and primarily written by Taylor Sheridan, is actually the show’s weakest season. It has gotten better as it goes along, but in the current television landscape, it’s hard for a show that doesn’t break out immediately to find purchase in the overcrowded awards landscape. 

Audiences caught up to Yellowstone over time, but trophies haven’t, because the Emmys are already choked to death by competitive family narratives. Meanwhile, Succession broke out immediately as an awards darling, earning an Outstanding Drama Series nomination in 2019 (it lost to Game of Thrones’ final season, in hindsight: silly). This is largely thanks to Succession’s extraordinary writing, and an ensemble cast that is so good even one-off characters are memorable. Yellowstone’s writing isn’t as sharp as Succession’s, which is not only tightly plotted but also Shakespearean in its dialogue. Sheridan can plot the hell out of a story, but his dialogue is forgettable, and the show is not as strongly cast—it’s easy to lose track of the ensemble players, who tend to blend together.

Now Yellowstone has to play catch-up in an Emmys landscape dominated by Succession, Stranger Things, The Crown, Game of Thrones/HOTD, and Euphoria. There’s a tendency to blame the trophy oversight on red state/blue state nonsense, but Yellowstone’s ratings are too high to bear that out—people from across the country and socio-economic landscape are watching Yellowstone. Are there some people dumb enough to limit their entertainment choices based on narrow political affiliation? Sure. Just like there are undoubtedly people who don’t watch Succession because it’s about “the lib’ruls” (even though the Roys are a Disney/Murdoch inspired dynasty, and thus, not liberal). But that is not the majority of people. Most people can actually watch stuff depicting people who live different lives from them, whether it’s Montana ranchers or New York media elite or Westerosi incest monsters or the dissolute fashion models of Euphoria high. To say otherwise is to underestimate the American audience, which is not as stupid or mean as certain factions want us to believe.

But Yellowstone definitely has a “no one talks about this” problem, which stems from two major issues. One is that no one is watching this show at the same time, which makes talking about it together difficult. On linear television, it airs on the Paramount Network, which I am not convinced anyone knows how to find on their channel guide. Like “The Roku Channel”, I suspect “Paramount Network” is some kind of long con. But wait, it gets worse, because on streaming, Yellowstone is on Peacock, one of the least-used streaming platforms out there. Season five will stream on Paramount+, finally consolidating Yellowstone into one distributor’s landscape, but it will still split viewership between linear and streaming viewing. (Correction: Yellowstone season 5 will air Sunday nights on the Paramount Network from November 13, 2022. It can also be streamed on Philo and Sling TV with a subscription. Someday as yet unknown, season 5 will stream on Peacock.)  I am convinced if you moved Yellowstone into a singular streaming environment, it would post House of the Dragon-level numbers, but it’s hard to find and out of synch, and no one is watching it at the same time or place, the way we are all trained to expect dysfunctional family drama on Sunday nights on HBO.


Also, Yellowstone is not a sexy social media show. It has this in common with Andor, billed as “Star Wars for grownups”. Andor’s popularity is growing over time, as positive word of mouth spreads, but its social media engagement is relatively low for a Star Wars title. It doesn’t have the flashy moments provided by, say, Luke Skywalker showing up with a laser sword to save the day, there’s no meme-generating Baby Yoda, or Timothy Olyphant being cool in space.

Tweet about Timothy Olyphant

Yellowstone is like Andor, in that it lacks big moments that can be taken out of context and memeified without losing appeal. Succession, though, is a meme machine. Cousin Greg alone is worth his weight in gold for reaction GIFs. Like, I just spent 30+ minutes trying to pick ONE Cousin Greg reaction. I could do a whole separate post dedicated JUST to Cousin Greg! 


And this isn’t even touching on how easily Succession crosses over with other pop cultural landmarks.

Succession/Godfather tweet

Yellowstone, meanwhile, doesn’t produce the same level of engagement. Not because people aren’t watching, we have established they are. It’s more that Yellowstone exists within its own universe and isn’t trying to reach beyond its own borders. This is what makes it so ripe for spin-offs, but it also limits the larger cross-over appeal of abstracting it to represent unrelated context. (Andor exists in the same way, it does not use the bigger pieces of Star Wars to tell its story, it exists in its own street-level context.) Succession, at times, feels designed for the internet, every episode chock-a-block with jokes that can be extracted and reshared digitally. 

News headlines on Succession 

Yellowstone is “for grownups” like Andor is “for grownups”, but what that really means isn’t that it is aiming, specifically, for an older audience, but that it simply isn’t catering to the extremely online fans. Succession feels written FOR the internet, like everyone involved with the show knows exactly which scenes and quotes and moments will be replicated online. Similarly, Euphoria’s costume design inspired an online meme of “people dressing for Euphoria high”, and now it feels like the costume design is self-parodying by leaning into this meta-context provided by online viewers. (What makes this meme great is the emphasis on ditching regular backpacks for teeny-tiny handbags because no one at Euphoria high has schoolbooks.)


The first is actually how I dressed in High School 🥲😅 #euphoriahighschool #euphoria #maddieeuphoria

♬ And why arent you in uniform - No context Spongebob

This isn’t a bad thing! Not every show has to be extremely online. Yellowstone is a solid primetime soap, it gets steadily better with each successive season, 1883 was totally enjoyable unto itself which bodes well for 1923, and not everyone who watches television WANTS to participate in exhaustive online discourse about every show they watch. Honestly, it’s nice to have shows you can just watch and enjoy and not splice and dice every scene for regurgitation online. Even younger viewers don’t want to memeify every show they watch. Yellowstone, then, is a kind of digital oasis. Even as its audience grows, I’m not sure it will ever become a meme show, partly because the writing doesn’t favor that, and partly because the audience just doesn’t seem interested in it. I am not interested in it! I like Yellowstone, but I don’t feel a need to turn it into a reaction GIF mine, and apparently no one else does, either. Not that GIFs don’t exist, they do. But a lot come from the show’s branded account:


Yellowstone is the most successful show we don’t talk about, and maybe that will never change. But does it matter, when the show IS, verifiably, one of the biggest dramas on television? And does it matter if it never dominates the Emmys? Party Down never got a single Emmy nomination, and to date, Reservation Dogs is 0 for 0 on that score, too. The Wire, widely regarded as the best drama of the modern era, only ever got two nominations (both for writing), and never won an Emmy. Lots of good—even great—shows don’t get Emmy nominations (although spin-off 1883 actually bagged three). Measuring a show’s success by trophies is dumb. Bad shows win, good shows get snubbed, it happens every year. It’s especially dumb to do with the Emmys because of the sheer volume of TV shows and the mathematical impossibility of nominating/rewarding everything. What matters is that people watch Yellowstone by the millions, and they like it so much they’re watching the spin-off, too. Taylor Sheridan created a self-sustaining television universe. That IS the trophy.