Lawmen: Bass Reeves Episode 1 review: A brief education

Jasmine Valentine
The cast of Lawmen Bass ReevesParamount+

Lawmen: Bass Reeves Episode 1 is our dutiful introduction to the reality of a man who became an urban legend. And because this is a Western series on Paramount, the gore is aplenty.

Starting with Bass Reeves’ (David Oyelowo) time in the 1862 battle of Pea Ridge during the Civil War, viewers of Lawmen come to learn how Reeves escapes from the clutches of his captor, and in turn flees into safer Indian Territory – not that it was all as simple as that sentence reads.

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Creator Chad Feehan is clearly taking his time to dig deeper into an untold story – and that commitment to an end product that has a specific goal is necessary. At the same time, the side effects mean that the balance often falls in favor of education rather than entertainment.

Obviously, Lawmen: Bass Reeves is going to be compared to the titan that is Yellowstone at every turn, especially because the now-standalone series was due to be part of that particular Taylor Sheridan-verse. In some ways, this new series is matching the old – but in others, there’s still a long way to go. But how much should that matter? Warning – minor spoilers for Episode 1 ahead!

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Setting the scene for a legend…

As any Episode 1 should, Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ opening is all about setting a scene. Feehan is casting forward the building blocks for a hopefully historical epic, taking viewers through the necessary process of Bass Reeves morphing from man to legend. At any rate, the story of Bass Reeves is a remarkable one. Staring a world of extreme social injustice and adversity directly in the face, Reeves is always making moves against it – and that alone is compelling enough to stick around for the ride.

It also makes sense that Oyelowo’s performance is currently the canary that’s singing the loudest. Cutting his bare feet as he crosses an unknown path in the hope of safety, all eyes remain on him making moves under the never-ending gaze of the White man. Reeves makes his fighting talents known early doors, delivering plenty of satisfying scenes packed with action and a Yellowstone-worthy amount of gore.

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The characters that surround Bass Reeves – either by choice or by force – are also an intriguing and eclectic bunch. Instead of being a passive force, Bass’ wife Jennie (Lauren E. Banks) actively encourages her husband to be his own independent man. His master George Reeves (Shea Whigham) confronts Bass with carefully placed cruelty and wanton disregard for much other than himself. George’s Civil War opponent Esau Pierce (Barry Pepper) is another ominous figure tainted with allure, following Bass around in the early stages of his establishment.

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…Which is a streamable history lesson

David Oyelowo in Lawmen: Bass Reeves... which isn't a Yellowstone spin-off.Paramount+

So far, Episode 1 of Lawmen: Bass Reeves proves that the series has an ongoing battle ahead of it – should it be more focused on education or entertainment? Oyelowo has said himself how important it is for Bass Reeves’ story to be told, and he’s right. Personality and extraordinary abilities aside, Bass has a story unlike any other, in an area of American history that tends to be glossed over in favor of the White guys taking up space. The shift in focus and responsibility is needed, and will no doubt be well-received.

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At the same time, Episode 1 feels more like a history lesson than a TV show a viewer will look forward to watching each week. Of course the series is going to need to do some worldbuilding to establish Bass Reeves as the larger-than-life figure that he became – that is always the task of a pilot episode. But in this case, Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ impressive historical accuracy doesn’t allow much room for the entertainment factor to shine through.

On top of this, the first episode has potential structuring issues when it comes to Bass Reeves’ timeline. Almost half of the episode is taken up exploring the impact of a couple of days, when the story suddenly shifts a year forward to 1863, as Bass explores more of the Seminole Nation. This is a cross the series must bear for its entire run – editing an entire lifetime down into 8 chunks less than 60 minutes apiece. From this first outing, the total success of this remains unknown.

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Lawmen: Bass Reeves Episode 1 review score: 3/5

Necessary, integral, yet not always entertaining, Lawmen: Bass Reeves is clearly still finding its footing in Episode 1.

Putting in the hard graft to establish a historical figure who was largely unrecognized by history itself, the show’s first outing does allude to something much bigger on the horizon. Will that something pay dividends? The jury is out.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves streams on Paramount Plus from November 5. Check out our other coverage below:

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About The Author

Jasmine Valentine is a TV and Movies Writer at Dexerto. She's written for the likes of Total Film, The Daily Beast, and Radio Times. Jasmine loves anime, dystopian thrillers, and anything starring Tilda Swinton. You can email her here: jasmine.waters@dexerto.com.