The growing “Yellowstone” universe has developed a pretty clear formula, which begins with an older movie star espousing square-jawed Western values, surrounding them with a younger cast and the trappings of a soap opera. Starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, “1923” takes star quality to the next level, putting a brilliant bow on a fairly basic package.
Prolific writer-producer Taylor Sheridan opens the Paramount+ series with a literal bang, framing this chapter in the Dutton family saga — joining the even older prequel “1883” — with an ominous narration that reads, “Violence has always haunted this family. … And where it doesn’t follow, we hunt it down. We are looking for him.
Ford patriarch Jacob Dutton doesn’t look for trouble, but he always seems destined to find it, running a huge Montana cattle ranch in the period a few years after World War I and during Prohibition, a time when cowboys ride horses in town and tie up next to parked cars.
Dutton, however, has a problem with locusts that have ravaged pastures and cattle and sheep farmers who are fighting over what’s left. If there is to be a war at a distance, the main culprit will be a bad-tempered sheep owner (“Jerome Flynn” from Game of Thrones), who does not respect Dutton’s fences or welcome suggestions to sell. part of his herd.
At home, meanwhile, Dutton’s wife Cara, an Irish immigrant allowing Mirren to rock that accent, presides over the ranch, which includes raising a young woman who, as far as priorities go, cattle come before his marriage plans.
“You have to want more than the boy,” says Cara. “You also have to want life.”
More than “1883”, “1923” represents an intriguing time, with the post-war economy, the recent memory of a pandemic and the looming prospect of the Depression a few years from now all adding to the intrigue, as touches of modernity collide with cowboy values.
Yet, as with other Sheridan shows, while the pioneering spirit can be poignant, the mileage varies in terms of peripheral actors and detours. Here, those include a left-field exit subplot involving a Dutton descendant, Spencer (Brandon Sklenar), spending his post-war years hunting in Africa; and a young Native American woman (Aminah Nieves) who was abused at a Catholic school.
To say the series could benefit from a more focused approach ignores how Sheridan has built his shows, populating Paramount Mountain with the dreary “The Mayor of Kingstown” and most recently “Tulsa King.” The multi-faceted storytelling offers the added benefit of easing the load of its veteran stars, who provide marquee sizzle without having to be in every scene. (The enduring Ford will wear another hat in the upcoming Indiana Jones sequel, but his gruff persona is actually reminiscent of his supporting role in “Cowboys & Aliens.”)
The popularity of “Yellowstone” frankly seems somewhat out of whack with its modest charms, and Paramount and Sheridan’s willingness to vigorously tap into this fertile vein will eventually produce diminishing returns.
Just by landing Ford and Mirren, “1923” has already hit the mother lode from a promotional standpoint. And even if not all the subplots click, it’s the kind of combination that should keep them on the farm for quite some time.
“1923” premieres December 18 on Paramount+ in the US and Canada, and December 19 in the UK and Australia.