(CNN) — The growing “Yellowstone” universe has developed a pretty clear formula, which starts with an older movie star espousing square-jawed western values, surrounding them with a younger cast and the trappings of a soap opera. With Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren saddling up “1923” takes the star quality to the next level, putting a shiny bow on a pretty basic package.
Prolific writer-producer Taylor Sheridan opens the Paramount+ series with a literal bang, framing this chapter of the Dutton family saga — joining the even-earlier prequel “1883” — with ominous narration that says, “Violence has always haunted this family. … And where it doesn’t follow, we hunt it down. We seek it.”
Ford’s patriarch Jacob Dutton isn’t looking for trouble, but he still appears destined to find it, running a massive Montana cattle ranch in the period a few years after World War I and during Prohibition, a time when cowboys ride horses into town and tether them next to parked cars.
Dutton has a problem, though, with locusts having ravaged grazing land, and cattle and sheep ranchers vying for what’s left. If there’s going to be a range war, the main culprit will be an ill-tempered sheep owner (“Game of Thrones’” Jerome Flynn), who doesn’t respect Dutton’s fences or welcome suggestions that he sell part of his flock.
At home, meanwhile, Dutton’s wife Cara, an Irish immigrant allowing Mirren to rock that accent, presides over the ranch, which includes schooling a young woman that when it comes to priorities, cattle come before her wedding plans.
“You have to want more than the boy,” Cara explains. “You have to want the life too.”
More than “1883,” “1923” represents an intriguing period, with post-war economics, the recent memory of a pandemic and the looming prospect of the Depression a few years down the road all adding to the intrigue, as touches of modernity collide with cowboy values.
Yet as with Sheridan’s other shows, while the pioneer spirit can be stirring mileage varies in terms of the peripheral players and detours. Here, those include a way-out-in-left-field subplot involving a Dutton scion, Spencer (Brandon Sklenar), spending his post-war years hunting in Africa; and a young Native-American woman (Aminah Nieves) enduring abuse at a Catholic school.
To say the series might benefit from a more focused approach ignores the way Sheridan has constructed his shows, populating Paramount’s mountain with the dreary “The Mayor of Kingstown” and more recently “Tulsa King.” The multifaceted storytelling serves the added bonus of lightening the load on his veteran stars, who provide marquee sizzle without having to be in every scene. (The durable Ford will be wearing another hat in the next Indiana Jones sequel, but his gruff character actually brings to mind his supporting role in “Cowboys & Aliens.”)
“Yellowstone’s” popularity frankly seems somewhat out of whack with its modest charms, and Paramount and Sheridan’s willingness to vigorously mine that fertile vein is going to yield diminishing returns eventually.
Just by landing Ford and Mirren, “1923” has already struck the mother lode from a promotional standpoint. And even if not all the subplots click, it’s the kind of combination that ought to keep them down on the farm for a while.
“1923” premieres December 18 on Paramount+ in the US and Canada, and December 19 in the UK and Australia.
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