Taylor Sheridan, the creator of “Yellowstone” and tireless workhorse of Paramount+, has already proven himself a prolific writer with a fully articulated vision of the stories he wants to tell. He’s built an impressive slate of dramas populated with cowboys, cobras and compromised cops, including three “Yellowstone” spin-offs. Sheridan could probably continue with his aggressive expansion with Paramount’s blessing. Instead, Sheridan has shrewdly chosen quality over quantity.
“1883,” the first prequel to branch off of “Yellowstone,” was initially presented as an open-ended series that would follow the earliest days of the powerful Dutton family as they led a wagon train westward. But Sheridan thought better of it, deciding instead to treat the “Yellowstone” spinoffs as anthologies. Rather than advancing the season one characters, the next installment of “1883” will star David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves, the real-life Black marshal who racked up boundaries during the same period.
Approaching the spin-offs as limited series comes with a host of benefits, among them a reduced risk of overwhelming audiences with an ever-sprawling, interconnected storyline. Sheridan improves his Emmy odds by creating “Yellowstone” anthology seasons too, given the limited series categories are more forgiving. But most importantly, the anthology model allows Sheridan to attract the type of marquee actors who are attracted to the storytelling on television but repelled by the long hours and massive time commitment.
In the case of “1923,” Sheridan’s troupe includes Helen Mirren and, in his series television debut, Harrison Ford. Mirren and Ford – both 80-ish, neither a stranger to action badassery – make for such a potent pairing, their chemistry alone is enough to make “1923” feel like an elevated version of Sheridan’s neo-Western fare. Ford stars as Jacob Dutton and Mirren plays Cara, his Irish-born wife. (For those interested in the specific genealogy, these Duttons are apparently the great-great-great uncle and aunt of Kevin Costner’s character in the mothership series.)
Set roughly 40 years after the Duttons first laid claim to what would become their sprawling Montana ranch, “1923” finds the family navigating the epochal changes around them. With the rising tide of Prohibition (and the Great Depression unknowingly on the horizon), these are lean times, and resentment toward the land-rich is peaking. Much of that resentment is directed toward the Duttons, who face the same struggle to keep their land of plenty as their present-day kin. To paraphrase the late, great Notorious B.I.G.: Mo’ Montana, Mo’ Problems.
One of those problems will involve Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn of “Game of Thrones”), a Scottish-born sheep herder first seen raising hell over being denied grazing privilege to the Duttons’ land. Flynn’s piercing eyes and barely concealed rage suggest Banner will make a sturdy foe. And there will be plenty more foes to vanquish beyond the pilot episode, the only one screened for critics from the first of two eight-episode seasons planned for “1923.” “Yellowstone” mines its suspense from the sheer volume of threats circling the ranch, and with Timothy Dalton set to appear as a rival rancher, “1923” should be able to recreate the beset-from-all-sides tension.
Despite the promise it suggests, the pilot has an awkward structure that makes it difficult to tell what will constitute a standard episode once the series progresses. Like “1883,” the episode starts with scenes of carnage paired with a weary narrator who promises the Duttons have barely scraped the surface of their coming strife. (Isabel May retains voiceover duties despite her character’s ultimate fate in “1883,” adding a literal ghost to the gaggles of figurative ghosts haunting Dutton Ranch.)
After introducing Jacob and Cara, along with their nephew John Sr. (James Badge Dale) and his son Jack (Darren Mann), and sketching out the Duttons’ most pressing woes, the focus shifts to a character initially far removed from the Duttons. Teonna (Aminah Nieves) is a Native American teenager being held in one of the horrific “boarding schools” of the era, essentially reprogramming centers designed to strip Indigenous young people of their culture.
The tight focus on Teonna’s suffering is a no-brainer for “1923,” if only because Sheridan’s work is so easy to criticize for valorizing European settlers at the expense of the natives they forcibly displaced. And her scenes, like the rest of the pilot, are beautifully covered by director Ben Richardson, Sheridan’s long-time cinematographer. But the character is so isolated from the others, her scenes don’t yet feel like part of the same show.
The same can be said for the scenes featuring Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar), another nephew of Jacob and Cara, who’s on an entirely different adventure on the other side of the world. “1923” keeps a lot of plates spinning, consistent with Sheridan’s plot-forward style. (The pilot is bookended with two violent deaths and concludes with a jump scare, lest anyone think being set in such a bummer of a time makes the show any less pulpy or fun.) And who knows, maybe the show will falter despite its impressive cast. But the nice thing about Sheridan’s new business model is that if you don’t dig this particular flavor of “Yellowstone,” perhaps you’ll enjoy one of the next five.
“1923” debuts on Sunday, Dec. 18, on Paramount+.