Bass Reeves used to be the kind of deep-cut Wild West hero known only to American history professors and people who own complete sets of Time-Life books. A fascinating figure, Reeves was enslaved on a Texas plantation before the Civil War, then escaped and reportedly lived among the Indigenous people in what is now Oklahoma, before spending much of the latter half of the 19th century serving as a U.S. Marshal based out of Arkansas. He’s a unique American hero: the Black frontier lawman.
It took a while, but Hollywood has recently discovered Reeves’ story, dropping fictionalized versions of him into TV series and movies as wildly disparate as Watchmen, Legends of Tomorrow, Wynonna Earp, and The Harder They Fall. These depictions have been fun but fairly shallow, using Reeves mainly for symbolic effect, without dwelling too much on what the man actually experienced.
The Paramount+ miniseries Lawmen: Bass Reeves, on the other hand, thinks very hard about its hero. The accomplished British actor David Oyelowo (also one of the show’s executive producers) plays Reeves as a righteous man, riven with interior conflicts. This Bass Reeves tries his best to take care of his family by serving the cause of justice, even if it means working alongside ethically challenged racists and against the kind of poor and marginalized people he’d prefer to be helping.
The first two Lawmen episodes—both debuting Nov. 5—serve as a two-part origin story. The premiere opens with Reeves under the thumb of the cantankerous southerner George Reeves (Shea Whigham) in the Civil War, before he fights his boss in self-defense and flees into Indian country. In Episode 2, the war is over and Reeves is struggling to make it as a farmer, before Deputy U.S. Marshall Sherrill Lynn (Dennis Quaid) comes calling, asking for help on a case. In the episodes that follow (at least the ones provided to critics), Reeves picks up a gun and badge and sets out to bring in various outlaws.
The supporting cast largely carries Lawmen’s ongoing subplots. Lauren E. Banks plays Reeves’ wife Jennie, who tends to their property and children, and is a pillar of the burgeoning Black community in western Arkansas. Grantham Coleman plays Edwin Jones, an activist determined to get that community to move toward self-reliance and away from the culture that enslaved them. Forrest Goodluck is Billy Crow, a roguish Cherokee longing for the kind of adventure he’s read about in dime novels. The stories are filled out with the usual Western types: saloon girls, sharecroppers, and swindlers.
Though Lawmen’s creator and show-runner is Chad Feehan, the show bears the unmistakable brand of its executive producer, Taylor Sheridan. At one point during the development process, the series was going to be called 1883: The Bass Reeves Story, marking it as a companion of sorts to Sheridan’s grueling pioneer saga 1883. The plan now is for the Lawmen title to carry over to future Sheridan-produced miniseries about real-life cops and crooks. (Consider this plan tentative; a TV devotee could go mad trying to track all the Sheridan projects that have yet to move beyond the “announced” stage.)
Like the other Sheridan shows, this prestige drama is heavy and dark—not just in tone, but in the actual lighting, which makes many of the nighttime and interior scenes look like they were shot in a cave. The pace is leisurely to the point of ponderousness, and much of the dialogue is dedicated strictly to Big Themes. There are very few casual conversations here. Everything’s about humanity, God, freedom, etc.
Still, while Lawmen: Bass Reeves could use a little of the whiz-bang that genre TV shows like Timeless have brought to the pulp-fiction version of Reeves, Oyelowo does add a revealing gravity to his take. There’s a guardedness to him, and a sense that even friendly white folks (like the judge who hires him, played by Donald Sutherland) can’t ever be fully trusted. Feehan deserves credit for pursuing this more sobering angle, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of shoot-’em-up entertainment. And there are moments when Feehan and company combine seriousness with Western thrills.
In a key scene in the second Lawmen episode, Reeves listens with growing impatience as the surly Lynn (well-played by Quaid) pontificates on right and wrong, reducing all the people he’s encountered on the job to types, devoid of any personality or purpose. Our man Reeves responds by punching the Marshall in the mouth. That’s this show at its best: standing up for the complexity and value of every human being… but also bringing a little ka-pow.