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With 1923, Taylor Sheridan Gets Awfully Close to Camp

The premiere of the new Yellowstone prequel isn't supposed to be funny, but it is.
  • Brandon Sklenar takes aim on 1923 (Photo: Emerson Miller/Paramount+)
    Brandon Sklenar takes aim on 1923 (Photo: Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

    The premiere of 1923 is very, very serious. Every cowboy in this Yellowstone prequel is in a life-or-death struggle with the Montana mountains or a feisty flock of sheep. Every mud-splattered lady burns with loneliness as she balances her need for a man’s affection with the chores that need doing. And of course, every character who’s part of a subplot about an African safari is in danger of being eaten by a pair of leopards that have developed a taste for human flesh.

    That’s why the show can be so funny. It’s hard to depict such relentless, operatic misery without crossing into camp, though I’m guessing this was unintentional. While I’ve seen several of his films, this is my first time watching any of Taylor Sheridan’s TV shows, which include both Yellowstone and its other recent prequel, 1883. I know they’re wildly popular, and I know they’re about the multigenerational trials of the wealthy and powerful Dutton family. From what I’ve gathered, they’re also straightforward dramas without a whisper of irony. That’s partly why I haven’t watched, since rugged westerns aren’t my thing. However, I’m always here for Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, so when I saw they were starring in 1923 as the head honchos of the Dutton ranch, I decided to give it a go. I didn’t expect to laugh so much.

    Which isn’t to say the entire episode is an accidental hoot. Sometimes, the earnestness is both earned and effective. Take the scenes with Sister Mary (Jennifer Ehle), a brutal nun at an American Indian boarding school, and Teonna Rainwater (Aminah Nieves), a student who resists the “cultural reeducation” she’s forced to endure. Those schools were real and often horrifying, and their brutality is credibly staged here. When Sister Mary physically abuses Teonna for getting a question wrong, or when Teonna whispers with a friend that nobody who leaves the school is ever heard from again, the show evokes the dehumanizing terror of the place.

    This is compounded by the scene where headmaster Father Renaud (Sebastian Roché) physically abuses Sister Mary for punishing Teonna too harshly. It’s a perversely intimate moment, with Renaud getting quite close to Mary as he demeans her, and it demonstrates that she isn’t just a stereotypical mean nun. Instead, she’s another victim in an oppressive system. The extra tragedy is that she tries to ameliorate her own sense of powerlessness by hurting her students, who have even less power than she does. Meanwhile, Renaud forces Teonna to watch him beat the nun until she begs him to stop hurting the very woman who hurt her. By manipulating their suffering into a type of sisterly bond, the headmaster does indeed restore order, and later in the episode, the women talk to each other with grudging respect. Lest things get too cozy, however, there’s a lingering shot of Sister Mary’s scabbed-over hands and of Teonna’s wounds dripping blood on the floor. Grotesque and raw, this scene has more power than anything else in the premiere.

    Women are also at the center of the other most effective moment. Liz Stratton (Michelle Randolph), a lady from a nice family, is set to marry Jack Dutton (Darren Mann), but she’s worried his cowboy life will leave her alone all the time. Jack’s aunt Cara (Mirren) explains that’s exactly right: She will indeed be by herself. But that means she’ll be free. With a fever of excitement, Mirren makes the liberation of the ranching life seem almost like paradise. This suggests an interesting theme, where the women on the ranch may have more to gain than the men. While the husbands get a life of property disputes and endless cattle drives, their wives get an unfettered existence that many American women of the era were denied. Granted, they also have to do hard manual labor while still fulfilling the roles of mothers, wives, and nurturers, but there’s a liveliness to Cara’s argument that could prove fruitful as the show progresses.

    But it’s hard to focus on those tantalizing stories when so much of the episode is devoted to Jacob Dutton (Ford) trying to quell a feud between cow herders and sheep herders. In an early comic gem, Jacob is presiding over a meeting, and when two herders start arguing, the entire room breaks into fisticuffs. Dozens of fellows go from grumbling to punching at the exact same time, like they share one brain. It’s like watching the Keystone Cops run around, waving their little fists in unison. Ford, at least, has the crotchety energy to suggest that he thinks they’re all fools. This series will benefit from his ability to make being irritated so much fun to watch.

    His skepticism could be useful on that African safari, where Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar) both protects travelers from wildlife and outruns his memories of World War I. Instead, this subplot is treated reverentially, as though a pair of killer leopards is a Moby Dick-level metaphor. But it just doesn’t hold up. For one thing, leopards are solitary creatures, which negates the whole premise of tag-team cats. For another, the episode ends with a snobby British lady getting mauled by a leopard while she’s outside trying to pee.

    Even if she were just standing there reading a book, it would still be ridiculous to see this poor woman get jumped by a CGI furball. But because she’s urinating, she’s both hurt and humiliated. That’s like something out of the Marx Brothers, where the snooty lady gets brought down a peg so the audience can cheer for the goofy heroes. It’s unlikely that Spencer Dutton is going to start imitating Groucho, but 1923 could certainly use a character who’s aware of how ludicrous things can get.

    New episodes of 1923 premiere Sundays on Paramount+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: 1923, Aminah Nieves, Brandon Sklenar, Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Ehle, Sebastian Roché, Taylor Sheridan