How Taylor Sheridan Is Redefining the Western Genre

When is the time to start telling your own stories?
by Shanee Edwards on March 8, 2024

The Wild West looms large in the American psyche, so it’s no surprise it plays a prominent role in the stories we tell in film and television. But there’s one writer who’s been able to take the essence of the Old West and modernize it for today’s savvy audience: Taylor Sheridan

Taylor Sheridan's Road to Mastering the Modern Western

Taylor Sheridan has had success as a screenwriter with such films as Hell or High Water (2016), Wind River (2017), and Sicario (2015), even getting nominated for an Oscar for Hell or High Water. Sheridan didn’t start as a writer. He came to Hollywood to be an actor.

His rugged good looks quickly got him to work. You may remember Sheridan as Deputy Police Chief David Hale on FX’s Sons of Anarchy, but Sheridan was still living in a dumpy apartment with his pregnant wife and getting paid as a mere day player after two seasons on the series. Sheridan did the unthinkable: he asked for a raise. What happened next would change his life in ways he could have never predicted. 

“They said, ‘No, you’re not worth it.’ So I quit. But they were right, the show did fine without me. It was a business decision. That’s when I realized, that’s all I’m ever going to be. So I decided to start telling my own stories,” Sheridan told me when I interviewed him in 2017—this was before Yellowstone, his supernova of a TV show, had even hit the airwaves. 

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) standing next to a field in 'Hell or High Water,' How Taylor Sheridan Redefined the Western Genre With His Own Stories

'Hell or High Water' (2016)

Taylor Sheridan Discovers the Core Values of the Western

Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner, depicts a New West—still the same gorgeous, big sky landscapes, perpetual cycles of grazing animals, and a favorite old trope, cowboys.

While there’s a nostalgia for a simpler time when good people lived off the land and relied on animals, not electric cars, for their income and transport, the thing that kept audiences glued to the TV is the sometimes relatable, sometimes shocking, family dynamic led by John Dutton (Costner), a man’s man who’s tough on the outside, uncompromising when it comes to protecting his family, and has a strong moral compass. 

Sheridan is a master at creating compelling characters and putting them in complicated moral situations. What’s exciting about watching the Dutton family is how they react to their circumstances, their choices, and how they bend and change.

“Every character has an arc. Each one starts in one place and ends up in another in my stories—from the smallest to the largest," Sheridan said. "In terms of giving that sense of lawlessness, what I’ve done is draw a line in this map in this world where I decided the rule of law gives way to the laws of nature."

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Two cowboys standing next to a man in a black and white suit next to a ranch in 'Yellowstone,' How Taylor Sheridan Redefined the Western Genre With His Own Stories


Why Yellowstone Is One of the Best Western

Yellowstone soon became the most popular show in America. The struggles of a modern working-class family living in rural America had not been as eloquently portrayed on television before now.

In this time of political polarization, economic uncertainty, and technological expansion, Sheridan's exploration of the American West resonates with audiences with an appetite for true stories and those that reveal the struggles of everyday people. He’s managed to strike a chord in the zeitgeist of people who want to remember the power of the American spirit and tradition.

John Dutton embodies a strong work ethic and a knack for transforming available resources into prosperity, and that same spirit also resides within Sheridan.

John Dutton (Kevin Costner) looking down at his grandchild in 'Yellowstone'


Taylor Sheridan Is Expanding the Modern Western Genre

Yellowstone spawned a series of spinoffs, some centered around the Dutton family. They include 1883 and 1923, but so far, Sheridan has created or executive produced no less than nine TV shows. Moving away from the Old West, shows like Mayor of Kingstown and Special Ops: Lioness may not have actual cowboys, but they contain the cowboy spirit by exploring themes of justice, redemption, survival, and a need to break the rules.    

Lawmen: Bass Reeves tells the true story of a real Wild West legend who lived during a particularly challenging time in America: the Reconstruction Era. In real life, Bass Reeves (portrayed by David Oyelowo in the show) started his life as a slave and, after the Civil War, became one of the first Black U.S. Marshals.

For Sheridan, the show fills an essential gap in the story of the American West that has been left out of his other shows. It’s the only show ever to serialize the Reconstruction period as told through the eyes of a former slave. 

Sheridan has created his own production company, Bosque Ranch Productions, to incubate all his creative pursuits. Helmed by Jenny Wood, who became President of Bosque Ranch in 2022 after working in talent management for Elevate Entertainment, ICM, and then moving into production at Blumhouse. Wood now shares the same creative mission as Sheridan, and oversees his powerful brand, nurturing popular TV shows and developing feature films. 

Bass Reeves (David Oyelowo) standing in front of wall with newspaper clippings in 'Lawmen: Bass Reeves'

'Lawmen: Bass Reeves'


As audiences continue to flock to Sheridan’s work, his appeal and success rely on his authentic portrayals of American life, past and present. His characters reflect our beliefs and values, tapping into that nostalgic notion of the American Dream. The idea that anyone can work hard and find success and maybe even love will always be the True North on the American cultural compass. After all, it worked for Sheridan—why not us? 

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