For those who know, the true story of Bass Reeves has long been one of those elusive properties that felt made for film or television treatment. Born in slavery. Conscripted into the Confederate Army. Escaped and sheltered among Indigenous people. Deputized as a U.S. Marshal and so famous he’s the alleged inspiration for the Lone Ranger. Not to mention one of the all-time great historical mustaches.
Every detail in Reeves’ biography is wild, but for reasons — or “reasons,” since we all know the reason — a filmed recounting of that biography has been restricted to fleeting episodic TV mentions in places like Drunk History and Timeless. So there’s no question that executive producer Taylor Sheridan deserves some credit for using his bottomless reservoir of Paramount+ clout to get a Bass Reeves limited series out of development hell and onto the air. I put “Letting more people know about Bass Reeves” in the “Absolute good” category.
Lawmen: Bass Reeves
The Bottom Line
An epic life gets respectful but drab treatment.
Airdate: Sunday, November 5 (Paramount+)
Cast: David Oyelowo, Lauren E. Banks, Forrest Goodluck, Demi Singleton
Creator: Chad Feehan
Unfortunately, I put Paramount+’s Lawmen: Bass Reeves in the “Inoffensively mediocre” category. An oddly disjointed series with very little voice or perspective, Lawmen: Bass Reeves benefits tremendously from David Oyelowo‘s central performance and from Sheridan’s impressive ability to attract high-profile guest stars for underwritten non-roles. But its answer to the question, “Why tell Bass Reeves’ story?” is basically, “Because he has a very busy Wikipedia entry.” It isn’t bad, but it’s very dry and inexcusably bland.
Lawmen: Bass Reeves — the title suggests an ongoing anthology series — was developed for TV by Chad Feehan and based, in some way, around the first two books in a trilogy by Sidney Thompson. Presented, at least through the first four episodes, as something closer to Bass Reeves: A Life in Paper-Thin Anecdotes, the series begins with Reeves (Oyelowo) still a slave and fighting alongside his owner George R. Reeves (Shea Whigham) in Arkansas. The latter Reeves is an aspiring politician and a drunkard and he and Bass fall out over poker and emancipation.
Subsequent episodes jump forward initially by days, then by a couple of years and then by a decade as the series follows Bass’ escape out onto the prairie, his acquisition of certain important skills — reading, expert marksmanship, apparent fluency in every single possible Native language — and his eventual ascension in the world of law enforcement with the help of those aforementioned guest stars.
First, he’s a posse-man for Sherrill Lynn (Dennis Quaid), a Deputy U.S. Marshall with very little compassion for his criminal prey. Then he’s deputized by Judge Isaac Parker (Donald Sutherland), whose own lack of compassion for defendants earned him the historical nickname “Hanging Judge,” though he’s perfectly kind to Bass. Then he’s off on his own, catching fugitives and whatnot, first with the assistance of Garrett (Garrett Hedlund), a posse-man with a gambling addiction, and then with small-time crook Billy Crow (Forrest Goodluck), a Cherokee who is inspired by Bass to follow the straight-and-narrow.
Meanwhile, occasionally Bass goes home to his wife Jennie (Lauren E. Banks), who births his children and, in the subplots of various episodes, purchases a piano despite having no particular financial means and no particular narrative use for a piano. Neither Jennie, nor Demi Singleton’s Sally, the only one of Bass’ many kids gifted with dialogue, has much of a part, nor do the domestic aspects of the story do much to advance the idea of Bass as a character.
But what does Lawmen: Bass Reeves understand about Bass Reeves as a man to begin with? Almost nothing. He is — and I’ve been repeating this word purposefully — compassionate. At the same time, he’s devoted to the idea of law and order. Does he believe in law and order because of the injustices he faced under slavery? Dunno. Does he believe in equal application of the law because despite earning his freedom, much of 1870s America still treats him as less than a second-class citizen? I haven’t the faintest.
I get, to some small degree, why Feehan and Sheridan want to treat Bass Reeves as a man, rather than as the symbolically progressive idea of a man, but it wasn’t insignificant for a Black man to be in law enforcement in 1875. Lawmen gives precious little illustration of what it meant or what it felt like for Bass, who is defined by his compassion and his love for Jennie, who is defined only by her love for Bass and her desire for Sally not to date, and almost nothing else.
If, in 2023, you’ve made a show that offers less insight on what it meant to be a Black man in law enforcement in the 1870s than Blazing Saddles did in 1974, you’re not digging particularly deep.
In lieu of actual character development or growth, the show just has Bass on a different job each week, all set against the brutality of the American frontier, which Sheridan’s series only know how to illustrate through graphic scalping scenes in their opening episodes. And while Billy Crow is possibly my favorite character in the series, because he’s got a personality, to say that Lawmen: Bass Reeves conflates every Indigenous group that once occupied the plains into a single amorphous foreign blob is an insult to the nuance of your basic amorphous foreign blob. Cherokee? Seminole? Creek? Not much matters in terms of specificity.
Director Christina Alexandra Voros, also a frequent cinematographer here, makes Lawmen: Bass Reeves look handsome, but small. Part of that — possibly all of that — is intentional. Despite the reliance on scenic tableaus of Bass and other characters riding their horses across wide-open vistas, usually at sundown or sunrise, there’s presumably a desire to treat Bass Reeves as grounded, as human. He isn’t engaging in epic shootouts — the action is consistently sturdy, but forgettable — and even the one Civil War battle we see barely reaches the level of a skirmish. But if you aren’t making Reeves iconic or giving him much by way of character development, something is missing somewhere.
Through the four episodes I’ve seen, nothing builds, either in Bass’ sense of himself or in a bigger adversarial sense. The first episode suggests Whigham or Barry Pepper, whose Esau Pierce claims outsider kinship with Bass, might be key villains and then they vanish. Quaid’s boozy and gruff Sherrill gives Bass somebody to butt heads with for one episode and then he vanishes. Hedlund’s Garrett has a sloppiness that is at odds with Bass’ fastidious nature — right down to the mustache that’s also somewhat underplayed — but then he vanishes.
Some of these actors and characters may return in later episodes and others won’t. I guess the show figures it’s enough of an asset to have Whigham, Quaid, Hedlund and Pepper, along with the effectively avuncular Sutherland, around here and there, instead of focusing on just one or two of them and giving them real parts to play.
Oyelowo has a steadying presence, and that may be ultimately where the show thinks Bass’ heroism resides. He comes from a horrible background, but doesn’t let it shape him. Even if some of the criminals with whom he interacts border on monstrous, he believes they deserve their day in court, not frontier justice. Oyelowo’s accent wanders, but that charismatic decency he projects does not. The question of how a man can maintain that decency in an indecent world has an answer that viewers are left to guess.
Maybe the answer is provocative and maybe it’s simple and maybe it’ll be dealt with in future episodes. Or maybe Bass will just keep catching one or two bad guys per week and Jennie will eventually play that piano. Either way, it’s about damn time Bass Reeves got a TV show. He remains a man deserving of a good one.
‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ Review: A Commanding David Oyelowo Can’t Mask the Blandness of Paramount+’s History Lesson