A good character introduction is one of the biggest weapons in a TV show’s arsenal. It’s the fastest way to turn viewers into ride-or-dies, because it’s easy to forgive a lot if a show introduces you to someone you think is incredibly cool (that’s why I and many other grown adults still love Dragon Ball). 1923the other Yellowstone prequel series after last year’s 1883, has a lot going for it in this regard. It stars Harrison Ford – the easiest way to get boomers and their families to stop what they’re doing and take notice. And it also helps that creator Taylor Sheridan is pretty good at introducing cowboys, like 1923their predecessors are distinguished by memorable openings built around their leading men.
1923 is not. Instead, it builds its splashy arrival around its leading lady.
Helen Mirren is 1923its other big gun, a legendary actor on par with Ford who will both appeal to older viewers and be appreciated by younger ones—a wise power play by one of the most popular TV shows on TV right now. She’s also, unfortunately, the only bright spot in the premiere, a quiet force of nature who watches men talk about doing things while she goes about getting them done; 1923The first scene shows her, as matriarch Cara Dutton, confronting and killing a suspected thief. It’s an act of violence that, crucially, no one sees – because when men are watching, Cara will have to act in more subtle ways.
In its ongoing success, Yellowstone has become a franchise about the Dutton family, telling the story of the powerful Montanans and their various conflicts with those around them. So far, the spinoffs each focus on a different generation of Duttons— 1883 followed James Dutton (Tim McGraw), the first Dutton patriarch to settle in Montana and establish the Yellowstone Ranch the franchise is named after.
1923 jump forward 40 years to Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford), current boss of the Dutton family and Yellowstone Ranch, who is currently trying to mediate a dispute between cattlemen and sheepherders after a rough season leaves both herds with little to graze. It’s not very exciting stuff, and mostly consists of scenes where Harrison Ford scares indignant farmers with his gruff voice and a six-gun. It’s a downer compared to the way 1923 introducing his wife, Cara, or the ways 1883 and Yellowstone proper introduced its leading men.
One can forget a lot that happens during 90 minutes Yellowstone pilot, but it’s hard to shake the opening moments in which John Dutton III (Kevin Costner) calms a horse in a terrible accident before putting it out of its misery. Or 1883its dual introductions of Pinkerton agent Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) and James Dutton, the former with a moment of terrible loss and the latter single-handedly fending off a gang of thugs who should have had him dead by rights.
None of 1923 is so indelible immediately after the title rolls. In fact, little of it concerns Yellowstone Ranch at all. A subplot follows Teonna (Aminah Nieves), a young woman at a Montana school for American Indians run by taciturn father Renaud (Sebastian Roché). Another introduces Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar), Jacob’s nephew estranged from his family after his service in World War I, currently working as a hunter and guard for the rich on the African savannah. It’s not clear how any of the storylines will play into things brewing around Yellowstone Ranch — Spencer’s story just seems like a change of pace for the franchise, a diversion before the prodigal son returns home. The Teonnas are more significantly removed – although the collision between Native Americans and settlers/ranchers like the Duttons is a regular feature of Yellowstone and its spinoffs.
With a two-season order in place, 1923 is content to take its time — primary antagonist Donald Whitfield (Timothy Dalton) doesn’t even appear in the first hour, despite his prominent placement in trailers for the show. When that happens, 1923 can turn up the heat – currently doing little to establish its own identity outside of the time period.
That time period is perhaps the most compelling thing about it 1923, a moment in American history when the legendary Wild West was long over and settlers had to decide how they wanted to live (or not live) with the people and land around them. The show isn’t a radical departure from the Yellowstone series—in those shows, Sheridan builds a sprawling libertarian opera, one in which owning land is the highest ideal a man can aspire to, and seizing American destiny makes him a target for those with less ambitions. They are about men who put order in a world that is beyond their control, and who usually react to change with violence. And at this moment in history comes change: the gap between America’s growing frontier and its cities is at its widest, and the looming catastrophe of the Great Depression, famine, and a new world war lurks just ahead. Right now, Cara Dutton is the only character on 1923 who seem ready to survive it.