Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren’s New Show Won’t Be the Next ‘Yellowstone’

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Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Paramount+

Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone The conflict between the old and the new worlds is the root of all that is wrong. This conflict also manifests itself in 1923This is his second prequel spin-off of his TV series. (1923 follows last year’s 1899.) Premiering on Sunday on Paramount+, it’s another capable notch in the writer/director’s belt, albeit one that’s too conservative—narratively speaking—for its own good.

The main selling point of 1923 Its headlines are: Harrison Ford And Helen Mirren, here starring as the larger-than-life parental figures tasked with maintaining their frontier Missouri clan’s power, influence, and health.

Ford is Jacob Dutton, the younger brother of 1883’s James Dutton (Tim McGraw) and the great-grand uncle of Yellowstone’s John Dutton III (Kevin Costner)—or, at least, that seems to be the lineage at play, since Sheridan doesn’t bother explaining the clan’s family tree. Jacob, his wife Cara Mirren, has taken over the Yellowstone ranch and is now the head of it. Spencer (Brandon Sklenar), Jack (Darren Mann) and John Dutton Sr. are also descendants of Jacob.

As embodied by Ford in the premiere (which was all that was provided to press), Jacob is a no-nonsense cowboy who carries himself like a bigwig—hence someone almost immediately yelling at him, “You’re no god, Jacob Dutton!” If he’s not the almighty, he’s definitely a man with clout, and 1923 illustrates that from the start via a brewing regional crisis: a swarm of locusts that have ruined the land, thereby putting everyone’s cattle in danger.

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Banner (Jerome Flynn), with his sheep herds encroaching upon neighboring leases, makes matters even more complicated. This leads to a meeting at a council overseen by Jacob during which there’s debate about whether men, or the mountains, own the grass—a dialogue that provides an insightful peek into the sorts of dilemmas faced by ranchers of the era, if hardly qualifies as gripping drama.

“The herd comes first,” says Cara later in 1923, and though that sentiment pertains to Jacob’s issue with cattle and sheep, Cara states it in the context of a different issue: the impending wedding of Jack and Elizabeth (Michelle Randolph).

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Jacob’s plan to save his cows involves moving them to higher ground, meaning that Jack’s nuptials must be postponed. Elizabeth finds this hard to stomach because, as Sheridan’s series explicates, a wedding is the only day in a 1920s woman’s life that’s just for her. Nonetheless, stomach it she must, since lady stuff comes second to manly concerns in this hard, rugged world—a truth, perhaps, but one that’s delivered with a clunkiness that engenders eye rolls.

It wouldn’t be a Sheridan Western without prolonged sequences of silhouetted cowboys riding horseback across the plains at dawn or hooting and hollering while rustling cattle. Unfortunately, director Ben Richardson’s wannabe-iconic images of the Old West are of a largely perfunctory nature, less a byproduct of inspiration than of obligation. Sheridan has at this point settled on a stable, unadventurous formula. 1923 It is a commitment that you will keep. If you’ve seen one of his gruff, imposing patriarchs struggling to maintain control of his fiefdom and manage his kids’ problems, you’ve seen them all.

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There are additional narrative threads in Sheridan’s latest, the first of which concerns Spencer, who’s not in Missouri but, rather, in the wilds of Africa. He and two of his local comrades stand their ground against a rampaging Lion, and kill the beast with a single shot. As flashbacks elucidate, Spencer is a hunky haunted veteran of World War I, and as in that battle, he doesn’t retreat from danger. He’s right at home in this far-away land because, as he tells a wealthy woman whom he’s hired to protect (along with her caravan) from a murderous leopard, he hails from a Missouri that’s just “the mountain version of this place.” Think a broodier PTSD-afflicted Clint Eastwood, minus the charismatic steeliness.

1923’s maiden installment spends additional time detailing the horrific abuse suffered by defiant Native American girl Teonna (Aminah Nieves) at the hands of a tyrannical nun (Jennifer Ehle) at a religious school run by an even more violent headmaster (Sebastian Roché), who’s another uncompromising man in a show full of them (“I have compassion, but no mercy”). This storyline intriguingly expands the series’ scope, and unseen—but destined to also factor into this mix—are Jack’s mother Emma (Marley Shelton) and influential and ruthless businessman Donald Whitfield (Timothy Dalton).

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They and others, such as Brian Geraghty’s Zane, will no doubt grapple with various romantic, financial and life-and-death predicaments throughout the course of this first season, even if they’re initially little more than minor variations on hackneyed types.

Ford is expected to be strict, serious, and noble. Mirren, however, serves as the strong, wounded heart. 1923. Affecting an Irish brogue that calls as much attention to her acting as to her character’s origins, the Oscar winner seems more than a bit out of place in this environment, no matter how expertly she tosses hay into the horse pen or how mournfully she expresses her longing (in writing) for Spencer to return home.

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A mysterious introductory passage depicts Cara hunting down a wounded gunman in the woods and, after a race between the two to reload their weapons, killing him in cold blood, at which point she screams to the heavens in anguish—a sign that she’s as formidable as her husband. Mirren is the odd woman out for now.

There’s no predicting precisely where 1923 is headed during this initial eight-episode season, but on the basis of its opener, it’s likely not straying far from the path, earnestly espousing down-home values and the supremacy of the rural to the urban. In the most overt articulation of the material’s ethos, Cara informs despondent Elizabeth that she’ll have to accept that every aspect of her life comes second to cattle (and men), but that in return—as a frontier woman—“you will be free in a way that most people can barely conceive.” If only 1923 itself were freer of Sheridan’s trademark clichés.

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