A good character introduction is one of the greatest 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 find incredibly cool (this is why I and many other grown-ass adults still love Dragon Ball). 1923, the second Yellowstone prequel series after last year’s 1883, has a lot going for it in this regard. It stars Harrison Ford, for one — the easiest way to get boomers and their families to stop what they’re doing and pay attention. And it also helps that creator Taylor Sheridan is pretty good at introducing cowboys, as 1923’s predecessors excel at memorable openings built around their leading men.
1923 is not. Instead, it builds its splashy arrival around its leading woman.
Helen Mirren is 1923’s other big gun, a legendary actor on par with Ford that will both resonate with older viewers and be appreciated by younger ones — a shrewd power play by one of the most popular TV franchises on television right now. She is also, unfortunately, the only bright spot in the premiere, a quiet force of nature who watches men talk about doing things while she goes to get them done; 1923’s first scene shows her, as matriarch Cara Dutton, confronting and killing a presumed 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 runaway success, Yellowstone has become a franchise about the Dutton family, chronicling the powerful Montana ranchers and their various conflicts with those around them. Thus far its 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 leaps forward 40 years to Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford), current head of the Dutton family and Yellowstone Ranch, who is currently trying to mediate a dispute between cattle ranchers and sheepherders after a tough season leaves both herds with little to graze. It’s not terribly riveting stuff, and mostly consists of scenes where Harrison Ford intimidates indignant farmers with his gruff voice and a six-gun. It’s a downer compared to the way 1923 introduces his wife, Cara, or the ways 1883 and Yellowstone proper introduced their leading men.
One can forget a lot of things that happen in the 90-minute Yellowstone pilot, but it’s hard to shake the opening moments where John Dutton III (Kevin Costner) calms a horse in a terrible accident before putting it out of its misery. Or 1883’s 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 bandits that should’ve had him dead to rights.
None of 1923 is so immediately indelible after its title credits roll. In fact, little of it is concerned with the Yellowstone Ranch at all. One subplot follows Teonna (Aminah Nieves), a young woman in a Montana School for American Indians run by the taciturn Father Renaud (Sebastian Roché). Another introduces Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar), Jacob’s nephew estranged from the family after his service in World War I, currently working as a hunter and guard of the rich in the African savanna. It’s not clear how either plotline 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. Teonna’s is 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 show up in the first hour, despite his prominent placement in trailers for the show. Whenever that does happen, 1923 might turn up the heat — currently, it does little to establish its own identity outside of its time period.
That time period is perhaps the most compelling thing about 1923, a moment in American history where the Wild West of legend was long over and settlers had to go about deciding how they would live (or not live) with the people and land around them. The show is not a radical departure for the Yellowstone franchise — in these shows, Sheridan is building a sprawling libertarian opera, one where owning land is the highest ideal a man can strive for, and seizing that American destiny makes him a target of those with less ambition. They are about men who impose order on a world that is out of their control, and most commonly respond to change with violence. And at this moment in history, change is coming: The gulf between America’s burgeoning frontier and its cities is at its widest, and the looming disaster of the Great Depression, famine, and another World War lurk just ahead. Right now, Cara Dutton is the only character on 1923 that seems ready to survive it.