Why Does Taylor Sheridan Get to Have a TV Empire?

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Why Does Taylor Sheridan Get to Have a TV Empire?

It would be nice to be the showrunner of six shows. It would be nicer to have writing credit on every episode (gigs are hard to come by these days), and an even sweeter deal to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing so as part of a lucrative studio overall deal (geewhiz, some people don’t get paid for the scripts they write at all!) To top it all off, wouldn’t it be positively swell to feature product placement for your own products in the shows you’re already paid a crazy amount for, even allegedly charging the studio $50,000 a week to shoot the show, which you exercise complete creative control over, on your own ranch? “Wouldn’t all of that be just peachy?” you’re undoubtedly thinking, perhaps as you tightly grip your WGA picketing placard.

Such is Taylor Sheridan’s life, showrunner behind the blockbuster cowboy soap Yellowstone, half a dozen other shows, and now the Zoe Saldana and Nicole Kidman-led CIA undercover series Special Ops: Lioness. For the better part of two decades, Sheridan was a struggling actor who became jaded at the difficulties of succeeding in Hollywood, which has seemingly given him so seismic a chip on his shoulder that he is completely disinterested in using his rapidly gained success to affect real change in the industry, or even for those working for him. Instead, he consolidates his power so that no suit or executive will ever be able to say no to him again.

In the wake of Kevin Costner announcing his exit from Yellowstone, not to mention the exits of two separate showrunners from Special Ops: Lioness and Tulsa King (in both cases, replaced by Sheridan), The Hollywood Reporter ran an in-depth profile of the superpowered writer, who is only happy doing things his way, seems very defensive about being criticised, and would do anything to keep hold of his beloved ranch (incidentally, so do the characters in Yellowstone, although they kill a lot of people doing so). Sheridan has not taken well to writers, editors, executives, and even showrunners trying to hamper his vision, and takes pride in wielding complete autonomy over his stories. This makes sense—you don’t build an empire by compromising.

Is it fair to call Sheridan the Ryan Murphy of middle America TV, or does his insisted auteurship align him more with the writes-every-episode, fires-original-showrunners likes of Sam Levinson? Whatever the answer, it’s clear why his shows are so popular: they are unsophisticated, unpretentious entertainment that caters not just to America’s South and West, but to all people interested in the American mythos. Cowboys, crime, land disputes, family spats, pithy summations of what it means to belong to the US of A—it’s all there, each show led by a lauded Hollywood actor happy to take the pleasant gig.

Yellowstone is also a win for those alienated by the streaming market, debuting on the unassuming and practically invisible Paramount Network in 2018 and soon becoming the most-watched scripted show on television. Audiences of all different tastes clearly crave entertainment that feels like it’s from a pre-Peak TV era, where every show is not trying to be remembered for piercing, cutting-edge writing and stand-out (and expensive) visual style, and just wants to keep eyeballs on the screen and TV remotes tuning in every week.

In many respects, the TV landscape is healthier thanks to Yellowstone, even if every subsequent variation of Sheridan’s artistry has served to exclusively bolster the studio’s flagging streaming service. Tulsa King, Mayor of Kingstown, 1883, 1923 (boy, you have to work hard to not mix up any of those names), and now Special Ops: Lioness can all be watched exclusively on Paramount+, despite the fact that they would be much better suited to broadcast network audiences on Paramount Network or even CBS. Military/cowboy/crime antics are popular for a reason, but they don’t exactly stand out amongst a million more complex, eye-catching and exciting shows (apart from the fact they all have A-listers in the cast, but we know that doesn’t guarantee audiences anymore). 

But Sheridan’s shows aren’t on Paramount+ because they should be, but because they need to be; Paramount+ is bleeding, and Sheridan is a name that attracts subscribers, even if the full breadth of his audience won’t enjoy the shows because of streaming access obstacles or exhaustion. If Paramount were to admit that these shows should be broadcast on TV, it would sink all faith in their very expensive streaming project. (Yellowstone reruns will air on CBS this fall due to strikes halting production, likely delivering residuals to its sole writer.)

Even if there’s nothing particularly abhorrent or damning about Sheridan’s success—his work undeniably appeals in its rugged simplicity to huge swathes of viewers—the context that created it is emblematic of studio prejudices against an equitable industry. Yes, Sheridan wants final say on all story choices, writing every script and challenging every budget restraint, but how uncommon is this in a heavily auteur-ish post-prestige TV era? Sheridan has pushed back against the WGA’s proposed minimum staffing requirements because he doesn’t want to relinquish any control to either inexperienced or experienced writers, but he has respected and supported the strike, and his pen is dutifully down. 

The problem is that a studio will only reward their showrunning superstar because it is in their best interest to only have to pay one writer rather than compensate teams of them, who come with annoying requirements like health insurance and individual residuals. Sheridan has voiced his dislike of writers rooms, but has only ever been in one as a showrunner and creator; perhaps he would have more sympathy for inexperienced, jobbing writers if he had ever tried to climb the industry ladder and been exploited by the very conditions that he now profits from.

If you look at his shows, Sheridan’s TV empire seems understandable and forgivable; if you look at the conditions that created it, or his resistance to acknowledge how unfairly things have been stacked in his favor, you start to wonder if TV empires should exist at all. Yes, TV is a writer’s medium, but that means writers plural for a reason, it’s not designed or intended to be an artform where individuals can dictate every minutiae. It’s even worse when they act like they’re the aggrieved party. Sheridan’s empire should be dismantled not because of the quality of his shows, but because reigns like his only worsen industry inequalities, and things won’t improve until people like him acknowledge it.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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