THE YOUNG RIDERS Ride Again on getTV

THE YOUNG RIDERS Ride Again on getTV

If you were a fan of The Young Riders during its original run, you enjoyed something of a rarity: a traditional Western on primetime television in the 1990s. The popular action series about the Pony Express galloped through three seasons, despite the fact that the genre had virtually disappeared from network TV decades earlier. Sure, it had a revisionist hook – historical hotties of the Old West! – but otherwise it was a delightfully retro example of the art form.

There’s nothing more timeless than handsome heroes fighting for justice. And with stories about racism, mob mentality, PTSD, gender identity, and Native American genocide, Riders definitely had a contemporary human rights sensibility. But in every other sense, creator Ed Spielman’s Emmy-winning drama was an old fashioned family show about frontier life. Think Little House on the Prairie, but with older kids and more firearms.  

As the Civil War loomed, the Missouri-based freighting firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell sought young men for what was essentially a suicide mission – delivering the mail across 2,000 miles teaming with “vandals, cutthroats, and men who would shoot their own mothers for two bits.” They advertised for orphans willing to risk death, and soon a team of troubled yet principled lads assembled to right wrongs, break hearts, and, occasionally, actually deliver the mail. (One would believe the real Pony Express riders had fewer side adventures than their TV counterparts, but that would have made a far less fun show.)

Set in the Sweetwater and Rock Creek stations, Riders introduces us to beloved anti-heroes before they became myths. Josh Brolin (excellent in last year’s Hail, Caesar!) is Jimmy “Wild Bill” Hickok, the fiery gunfighter with a temper as quick as his trigger finger. Stephen Baldwin is the smart aleck William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the only real-life figure who actually worked as a Pony Express carrier. Ty Miller is “The Kid” (later “Billy the Kid”), the team’s small town boy and quiet enforcer. Gregg Rainwater is Running Buck Cross, a half Kiowa Indian whose mixed blood makes him a target of discrimination by both cultures. Travis Fine is Ike McSwain, bald-headed from Scarlet Fever and haunted by memories of his parents’ violent death. And Yvonne Suhor is Lou McCloud, a tomboy masquerading as male because the Pony Express doesn’t hire girls (and workplace discrimination laws are still a century away).

It’s worth noting that the love story that forms the emotional heart of The Young Riders is between a man and a woman posing as a man. While Lou’s true identity is eventually discovered by her fellow riders, playing with gender roles and identity gives the show an even greater contemporary relevance. And Suhor is a delight as Lou, in a subtle performance that resonates even more today than it did a generation ago. (A scene in which she tries on a dress and stands in front of a mirror for the first time in years as Louise is a first season highlight.)

You can’t have a family without parents, and The Young Riders calls in some big guns for the dad and mom roles, as well. Veteran character actor Anthony Zerbe puts a unique spin on the “grizzled mentor” stock character as Teaspoon Hunter, a former Texas Ranger and the team’s spiritual leader. And Melissa Leo, an Oscar winner for The Fighter in 2010, shines as house mother Emma Shannon in season one (followed by Clare Wren as Rachel Dunn for the balance of the series). Other riders join up over subsequent seasons, including Don Franklin as freeborn black man Noah Dixon and Christopher Pettiet as 14-year-old Jesse James. And Brett Cullen is Marshal Sam Cain, Emma’s once (and future) beau.

Unlike a lot of ensemble action shows (and big-budget superhero franchises), Riders does a great job of balancing the screen time of the entire cast and bringing the team together only when it makes narrative sense. The show also deftly establishes each character’s personal mythology while telling stories that are self-contained and easy to follow. (Don’t worry about jumping in in progress; you’ll be saddled up by the end of the hour.) Guest stars are also smartly deployed, with highlights including Jay O. Sanders as a dandified bounty hunter in season one, Brian Keith as an elderly grifter in season two, and Jamie Walters as Jesse’s brother Frank James in season three.

The Young Riders won an Emmy for composer John Debney’s score and received numerous nominations from the American Society of Cinematographers for its gloriously cinematic visuals. And speaking of film, the series was shot primarily at the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, a location originally used by Columbia Pictures in 1939. Literally hundreds of films and TV shows have shot there over the last 75 years, from The Bells of St. Mary’s in the ‘40s to The Three Amigos in the ‘80s.

Ironically, the Pony Express existed for only half as long as the TV show based upon it a century later. The original young riders shut down in October of 1861 after only 19 months, as the transcontinental telegraph connected East and West. And The Young Riders hung up their spurs in July of 1992 after an emotional, two-part finale that wraps up the storyline at the dawn of the Civil War. It’s an appropriately traditional conclusion for a series that has its boots firmly fixed in both American history and folklore.

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