2 out of 5
Created by: Taylor Sheridan
covers season 1
In his Paramount playground, Taylor Sheridan has tried to juggle his apparent love for some tried and true American cinematic genres – crime flicks, Westerns – with a grumbling awareness / acceptance of the march forward of the realities regarding romanticized concepts common to those genres. A favorable read says that very juxtaposition is part of these shows, but I tend to see it more as an apologist’s take: dammit, I know things weren’t that great, but… (insert mumbled justification about being a man / fighting for democracy / etc.). In Mayor of Kingstown, it’s simply an inverse of this idea – things used to be great, and now they aren’t! – formatted as tragedy / violence porn; going further out to Tulsa King, framing it as a fish out of water tale allows back in that romanticization again.
Back in the Yellowstone-verse, 1823 actually managed to hold on to a more sobering POV, perhaps owing to be a limited series. There are good intentions here at a high level – examinations of our culture, however short-sighted – and in that series specifically, Sheridan’s appreciation for tragic characters plus that set conclusion gave it a bit more impact and poignancy.
1923 does not have that same kind of limited scope, has two mega stars in its lead roles – meaning we’re somewhat shorted any depth in favor of highlighting them – and has the hardest time bending over backwards to pretend to mix more modern social concepts with its “traditional” moral system. And if Yellowstone has been considered a sort of stereotypical “dad” show – a more somber variant of NCIS and etc. – 1923 is trying to halve that (Harrison Ford fights for good ol’ American values, staving off the evils of technology to save his farm!) with a stereotypical “mom” show, e.g. Outlander, via a templated sweeping-epic romance between lion hunter Spencer (Brandon Sklenar) and British high-society lady Alexandra (Julia Schlaepfer), the latter spouting some of the most eye-rolly dialogue as scripted by someone who assumes romance is defined by swooning ladies and barrel-chested men.
Is there anything wrong with reveling in tropes? Not necessarily, but while I think it can be argued that Yellowstone satisfies by sinking into its soap operaness, 1923’s historical bent gives it loftier intentions, but it’s executed in an very unfortunate blend of old-school and new-school mentalities, rendering, say, the plight of the American Indians at the time told through exploitative sequences that revel in showing how nasty the schools run by the Church could be, or how abusive the law enforcement of the time was. Factual? Yes, but, again, it’s the approach that wrankles, as Sheridan keeps trying to walk a line to show how bad things were (often with lots of rape and violence) and then flip back and celebrate good ol’ being tuff and men and women falling in love and making babies and fighting for your rights. The most ridiculous, direct example of this comes from when this era of Duttons (the family which is the focus of the Yellowstone shows) is around the dinner table, debating the lack of difference between the incoming, technology-embracing, politics-manipulatin’ capitalists, and the traditionalists like Jacob Dutton (Ford) and his family: when pushed on how they’re essentially one and the same, both using power to get what they want – a great point! – Ford launches into a very vague speech on how the Duttons represent some kind of holier variant… which, again, could favorably be said to be purposefully ironic, but it’s a scene-ending stinger that suggests we’re moreso intended to be stirred by it.
Regarding Ford, there’s the sense he was wooed in here by the opportunity to wear a cowboy hat and say some manly cowboy shit while riding a horse; he seems particularly unengaged for the first few episodes. After his character is humbled by certain events, he’s able to ping off of scenes better, but out of our two big stars, Helen Mirren surely acts circles around him here, if limited (as per Sheridan stereotypes) to a “strong female protagonist” type marm. When the Dutton farm is in trouble and son Spencer is summoned home from Africa, we start spending time with him and Alexandra, who gets wooed by a sense of adventure in joining him. Sklenar is quite excellent, giving his character’s silences more depth than required; Schlaepfer is undeniably charming but, again, is saddled with some very cheeseball dialogue. That said, the “sweeping epic” formula is executed all gung-ho: the various action sequences these two are shuttled through (jungle adventures, boat adventures) are very impressive. And appearing down the road is Timothy Dalton, playing an evil dude who is an evil dude. Jerome Flynn is popped in as Dalton’s cronie, and is criminally underused. Aminah Nieves plays Teonna Rainwater, a young Indian woman who escapes from an Americanizing boarding school, and is our avenue into exploring how Indian culture was being attemptedly eradicated at this time – probably the most intriguing throughline of the show, but also somewhat tacked on out of need, and plagued by the above mentioned fetishization of bloodshed.
We thus are mostly split between drama on the farm, and drama offshore. It’s a sensible setup, but we’re in a point of transition from the start, making 1923 feel like it’s always an episode away from actually starting – like this is all preamble. Combined with the short-sighted messaging, it is the largest contrast of large spectacle and minimal substance yet executed in a Sheridan show.