Judge David Johnson has never once walked into a saloon and had everyone stop talking and look nervously at him—yet.
In 1989, a ragtag group of do-gooders made their debut on the small screen. This eclectic mix of adventurers would go on to engage in a series of compelling stories, based in the sandy, wind-swept locale they called home. They were pioneers, forging a destiny for themselves—and television has never been the same since. I am, of course, talking about the lifeguards from Baywatch. Coincidentally, The Young Riders premiered that same year, and that show's first season is what I'll be looking at today.
Facts of the Case
In the days before the Civil War, a group of young, dedicated, thrill-seeking horseback riders found jobs in the new Pony Express, the equine-based mail service of the Wild West. The Young Riders tells the fictionalized account of one group of these postal employee precursors, and the assortment of wild and wooly adventures they found themselves embroiled in. From Indian attacks to renegade gunfighters to femme fatales to mentally challenged cathouse enforcers, these guys (and girl) faced it all, forced to rely on their wits, their horsemanship, their six-shooters, and each other. Let's peer into the stable, and reacquaint ourselves with these fab frontiersmen.
• "The Kid" (Ty Miller): The all-around good
guy, The Kid is quick to help his friends and is horny enough to go after the
first girl he sees—even if she kind of looks like a boy.
• James Butler Hickok (Josh Brolin): The man who would
later become the infamous "Wild Bill" Hickok, Jimmy came to the Pony
Express as a rough-around-the-edges, short-tempered cur with an itchy
trigger-finger. He too is horny.
• William F. Cody (Stephen Baldwin): Another real name
Wild West all-star, William a.k.a "Buffalo Bill," ended up as Jimmy's
closest friend. He is a loyal, idealistic young guy, and has been known to
follow his impulses a little too eagerly.
• Louise "Lou" McCloud (Yvonne Suhor):
Desperate to get a job to support her younger siblings, Louise McCloud made
herself up to look like a boy so she could ride with the Pony Express. She is
often spotted sitting in a tree with The Kid, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
• Running Buck Cross (Gregg Rainwater): Buck finds himself
in the unenviable position of being half-Indian and half-white, derogatorily
referred to as a "half-breed." Thus, he receives crap from both the
red and white man. Thankfully, he's got awesome hair.
• Ike McSwain (Travis Fine): Due to an illness he
contracted, Ike lost his hair and use of his voice. He can hear, but
communicates with sign language, usually to his best friend Running Buck
Watching over the Young Riders are Emma Shannon (Melissa Leo), the nurturing "big sister" of the bunch, and Teaspoon Hunter (Anthony Zerbe), a retired Texas Ranger who's seen it all and is not afraid to share his beaucoup advice with his riders. In the neighboring town of Sweetwater, U.S. Marshal Sam Cain (Brett Cullen) attempts to keep the peace, and sometimes asks the Riders to help him with stickier matters that require extra firepower.
Season One of The Young Riders comes spread across five discs:
The Young Riders—I barely knew thee. I have fleeting recollections of this show, but was never a big fan. I remember digging the theme song and thought that Josh Brolin was pretty cool (no doubt thanks partially to my adoration of The Goonies). Oh and, Teaspoon was a crazy mother@#$%&*. Aside from that, I harbor no other memories. I do understand, however, that his series holds a loyal fan-base, and that my wife was one of them. She was flat-out thrilled to watch these episodes again and, having galloped through the Dakota territories with the Pony Express this last week or so, I can safely say: fans, your nostalgia was not misplaced.
The Young Riders is a really good show, not quite great, but representative of what an entertaining 45 minutes of network television could be like. There are many reasons why this season works for me, not the least of which is the cast the producers assembled. The Riders themselves are comprised of an eclectic mix of six interesting characters. The standouts, for me, were Brolin's Hickok and Rainwater's Buck. Hickok must have been a blast to play—who wouldn't want to be a grumpy, volatile badass who gets to shoot people? Out of everyone, Hickock undergoes the most character development, evolving from a prickly loner to a loyal friend and a more disciplined hothead. He's a cool guy and his popularity is justified. As for Buck, my man got less screen time than his brethren (except maybe Ike, but he was mute!) yet appealed to me for a couple of reasons: a) he's got that whole "torn between the Indian and the white man" thing going on, fertile ground for characterization and b) dude can kill rattlesnakes with throwing knives!
Though the others didn't quite appeal to me as much, there isn't a sucky character in the bunch. Lou (ise) manages to come across as "one of the boys," yet still clings to her femininity (e.g. "Lady for a Night"); thankfully, the creators don't prolong her guise and dispense with the cliched "I can do anything you boys can do" schtick, simply showing Lou accepted in the brotherhood. Stephen Baldwin brings a goofy charm to Cody and Travis Fine does a…uh…fine job with the fairly limited Ike (though he tends to over-emote with his facial expressions to compensate for the lack of verbosity). Finally, you got The Kid, the de facto main character of the group, the first guy we are introduced to, and the audience's portal into this Wild West world. Ty Miller certainly gets a lot of episodes dedicated to him, and at least plays a strong supporting character to ones that are not. And while he's handy in a gunfight and a nice guy overall, I found him the most one-dimensional of the group. A few episodes bring more depth, especially "False Colors," which reunites The Kid with his scumbag brother and forces him to make some tough decisions. Anchoring the kids are the grown-ups, Brett Cullen as Sam Cain, who would only do this one season, Emma (shelved for the more photogenic Clare Wren in subsequent seasons), and the eccentric Teaspoon. Yeah, Teaspoon is awesome, and we'll just leave it at that.
At its best, The Young Riders is rip-roaring entertainment: "Gathering Clouds" (the two-part finale ending in a town-wide shootout), "Speak No Evil" (the Riders protect Ike on a dangerous trip to testify against a murderer), and "Hard Time" (The Kid is forced into a prison camp, and the Riders show up to kick some ass) are a few of my favorites. At its worst—and this is a diluted use of the word "worst"—the shows lose their luster when predictability sets in. Still, even when you've mapped out how it's all going to end and who's going to shoot who, hey, at least someone gets shot!
And that takes me into the last thing I have to say: The Young Riders is powerful violent! It's not bloody or gratuitous, but there's lots of Western violence (i.e. guys with rifles falling off the tops of buildings, dudes getting thrown back from getting shot through broken General Store windows, riders shot in the back and tumbling off their horses, etc.) Sweet.
Episodes are presented in their original full frame aspect ratio, and look pretty good for the most part. I did notice a few moments of severe quality deterioration (lots of grain and faded colors), but overall I was satiated. The 2.0 stereo mix is fine and sounds better when pushed through a Pro Logic II decoder. As for the extras? My guess is a posse rounded them up and hung 'em.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is probably heresy to devotees, but the overuse of electric guitars in the soundtrack irked me.
I had a great time with this first season of The Young Riders. Not having really seen it when it aired, it was a ball watching these adventures from the beginning. Even if you're not a huge Western fan (I'm not) I'd wager you'd enjoy yourself with the goings-on of Teaspoon and the boys.
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