THE YOUNG RIDERS — 10 Facts About The 1990s TV Western

THE YOUNG RIDERS on getTV

As America was built by westward expansion during the 19th century, so too was American television built by the Western programming boom of the mid-20th century. More than two dozen shows set in the Old West populated primetime at the format’s peak in 1959, and it looked like medium and the genre would be forever linked. Spoiler alert: they weren’t

By the time The Young Riders debuted in 1989, Westerns had been virtually nonexistent on network television for more than a decade. But, like a determined pioneer, the series about teenaged mail carriers on the Pony Express survived on its wit and ingenuity. The Young Riders was a Western with a twist: a prequel to the life stories of folkloric anti-heroes before they became myths. And it didn’t hurt that the heroes were handsome. 

Josh Brolin — who has gone on to the greatest success of the principal cast — plays Jimmy Hickok, known in the dime novels as “Wild Bill.” Stephen Baldwin is William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, smart aleck sharpshooter. Ty Miller is “The Kid,” a polite Southern boy with a quick trigger finger. Gregg Rainwater is Running Buck Cross, half Native American and a target of discrimination by both cultures. Travis Fine plays Ike McSwain, bald and mute from Scarlet Fever. And Yvonne Suhor is Lou(ise) McCloud, a tomboy posing as male because the Pony Express doesn’t hire girls (and Women’s Lib is still a century away). Added for later seasons are Don Franklin as Noah Dixon and Christopher Pettiet as Jesse James. Anthony Zerbe plays grizzled mentor Teaspoon Hunter and Melissa Leo and Clare Wren are the house mothers.  

TV Westerns went bust, in part, because of redundancy; dozens of shows told similar stories about similar people in a small slice of America’s rich history. The Young Riders reinvigorated the genre with well-written tales that grew from core character development, rather than the Bad Guy Of The Week. Guest stars were deftly deployed, but never reduced the stars to supporting players on their own show. Episodes featuring Jay O. Sanders as a gunfighter, Fisher Stevens as the nephew of the Pony Express’s general manager, and Brian Keith as an elderly grifter are among the show’s best.

The limited lifespan of the Pony Express — it was only in business for 19 months — gave the series a finite narrative that it stuck to. And each episode is infused with a sense of urgency, like it’s a step on the path to an actual, historical destination. Thirty years later, it’s time for a serious creative reappraisal of this underrated gem. And you can do that every weekday on getTV. So saddle up and enjoy these fun facts.

1. The series creator was already famous for a Western.

The Young Riders writer/producer Ed Spielman is best known as the creator of Kung-Fu, the 1972–75 “Eastern Western” about a Shaolin monk who wanders the American West in the mid-19th century. Spielman, a Brooklyn-born author and journalist, cast ten actors who appeared on Kung-Fu in The Young Riders, including series star David Carradine and Anthony Zerbe.

2. The Young Riders is not based on Young Guns. Really. It’s not.

Young Guns (1988) is a Western drama about an older man (Terence Stamp) who hires six handsome teen gunslingers to work for him in 1877. The Young Riders is a Western drama about an older man (Zerbe) who hires six handsome teen gunslingers to work for him in 1860. If the two concepts sound similar to you, you’re not alone. Morgan Creek Productions sued the producers of The Young Riders for copyright infringement. As a result, later episodes include the disclaimer “Not based on Morgan Creek’s films Young Guns and Young Guns II.”

3. It was almost cancelled after Season One.

The Young Riders was up against tough competition when it debuted in September of 1989: Cheers, the seventh–highest rated show in primetime. Despite critical acclaim, it consistently ranked in the bottom 25 of all primetime shows throughout its first reason. Rather than cancellation, ABC decided to try a different timeslot for season two: Saturdays at 8pm. Ratings immediately improved, with Riders winning its slot in five of the first seven weeks. It even out-performed cult classic Twin Peaks, which followed on ABC at 10pm.

4. Changes were made for Season Two.

In the Season One finale, Sweetwater survives an attack by an anti-government militia (led by guest star David Soul). The season ends with the Riders reunited with Teaspoon, Marshal Sam Cain (Brett Cullen), and Emma (Melissa Leo), his on-again, off-again girlfriend. When the second season begins, Sam and Emma have married and moved away, and Teaspoon is now acting marshal. New Rider Noah Dixon (Don Franklin) — a freeborn African-American — is introduced spending his life savings to buy a slave at auction in order to free her. And Rachel Dunne (Clare Wren) —  on the run after killing the man who murdered her husband — becomes the new housemother.

5. The show plays with gender roles in groundbreaking ways.

Viewers today may be surprised by what The Young Riders does with the character of Lou. She’s a young woman posing as a man, yet she’s having a romantic relationship with another man (the Kid). While Lou’s true identity is soon discovered by her fellow Riders, the rest of the town doesn’t know, and the show uses that inherent danger to good effect. Playing with gender roles and identity gives the show an unusual degree of contemporary relevance for a Western series that was often dismissed as “hotties on horseback.”

6. It was shot at a historic studio.

The Young Riders was filmed primarily at the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, a location originally built by Columbia Pictures for Arizona (1940). Hundreds of films and TV shows have shot there over the last 80 years, from The Bells Of St. Mary’s (1945) to The Quick And The Dead (1995).

7. It was award-winning.

The Young Riders won an Emmy Award for its musical score (by composer John Debney) and was nominated for costuming and opening theme. The show’s movie-quality cinematography received nominations three years in a row for Outstanding Cinematography by the American Society of Cinematographers.  

8. More changes came in Season Three.

The third season brought a new Rider: Christopher Pettiet as 14-year-old Jesse James, the youngest of the crew. Jamie Walters is also featured as Jesse’s brother Frank James. And one of the original six Riders dies in a powerful episode.

9. The story ends.  

From the first episode, the looming Civil War hangs heavy over every character and story in The Young Riders. So, when the decision was made to conclude the series after three seasons, it made sense for that end to be the war’s beginning. The two-hour series finale includes both a wedding and the death of a main character. It’s a somber affair, owing to the destruction that followed in a divided America for the next four years. Many shows would have ignored this in return for a schmaltzy finale. The Young Riders chose to go out on a note of dramatic truth.

10. Where are they now?

Josh Brolin went on to score an Oscar nomination as Dan White in Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008). In recent years he’s played Thanos in the Avengers films and Cable in Deadpool 2. Melissa Leo won an Oscar for The Fighter (2011) and was nominated for Frozen River (2009). Anthony Zerbe — age 82 as of this writing — appeared in the Oscar-nominated American Hustle (2013) and was featured in The Matrix series. Stephen Baldwin was in Born On The Fourth Of July (1989), The Usual Suspects (1995), and most recently in Tapestry (2017). Brett Cullen was featured in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Netflix’s Narcos. Ty Miller appeared recently in A Girl Named Jo and Without A Trace. Don Franklin was on Insecure and NCIS: Los Angeles. Clare Wren most recently appeared on J.A.G. Gregg Rainwater guested on Walker, Texas Ranger and has done voice work in animated shows like Young Justice. Yvonne Suhor appeared in Northern Exposure and Star Trek: Voyager and is now an acting teacher. And Travis Fine is now a commercial airline pilot, an appropriate gig for someone who used to ride for the Pony Express.

The Young Riders airs weekday mornings on getTV. For more, visit the getTV website.

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