Young Riders, 21 years later

It’s hard to believe Young Riders debuted twenty-one years ago. Re-watching the show now, it strikes me as better than at least ninety-nine percent of the TV shows that have come since. Back in 2006, when I reviewed a single episode called Hard Time, I said the series deserved a full series of articles. Now I’m finally starting to write that series. Consider Attraction to Bad Guys, Written Properly the first, and this the second. This article takes an overall look at the show’s pros and cons. I’ll be getting into more specifics later.

I give a great deal of credit to my friend, Captain Tivteryn – a fan of Young Riders who helped me sort through my thoughts on the show.


Lou (Yvonne Suhor), Emma (Melissa Leo) and Rachel (Clare Wren) were all well-written characters who became fully humanized through backstory and their relationships with others on the show. The only downside is that Rachel was a blatant Hotter And Sexier replacement for Emma – the network’s idea, not the producers’. Despite this, all three characters were complex, interesting and distinct from one another. That’s more than you can say for the vast majority of female TV characters.

This probably happened because creator Ed Spielman had engaged his brain in some of that critical thinking and come up with the idea that women who left civilization behind for the wild West in those years most likely had good reason:

To me, those female characters were at least as heroic as the men, because they were always working under more duress. A man’s life is simpler. You live, you die… you have courage… or don’t. Women must
have courage for the long haul, putting up with a lot of additional pressures. I thought, in creating these female characters, that it was a good opportunity to show not only their heroism, but what they had to deal with just to make it through the day.

Whether or not one agrees with every word in that paragraph, it’s nice to know Spielman bothered to wonder  how women experience life. Maybe it’s because he was working in TV and film before the blockbuster era, back when they still thought characters should be interesting and perspectives other than those of fourteen-year-old boys had some value – and back when it looked like the second wave of feminism was going to get the job done.

Upcoming articles will profile Lou, Rachel, Emma and some of the guest stars and recurring women characters, and get into many more specifics.


Young Riders also did an unusually good job dealing with race and ability. They included in the original team a rider named (Running) Buck Cross (Gregg Rainwater), who was half-Kiowa and half-white. Buck experienced discrimination from both the Kiowa and whites, but tried to mediate disputes between “Indians” and white settlers or the U.S. government on several occasions. The producers later added Noah Dixon (Don Franklin), a free-born black man. According to Wikipedia, Franklin “…became the first black actor to hold a starring role in a television western, a role he found alluring as he felt many people did not know that there were black cowboys and free black people, not just slaves, during the late 1800s.” While many of the plots centered on Buck or Noah had to do with race issues, some did not, and there were also race-issue plots that didn’t center on their characters. The show made a lot of fascinating and factually accurate points about race issues which stuck with me into adulthood. For example:

  • “Indians”, by and large, didn’t rape white captive women. Whites, on the other hand, raped all sorts of women.
  • A black slave who is third-generation American, and proud of it, must escape to Canada in order to live as a free person.
  • “Indians” were actually a collection of nations that should be viewed as distinct from one another. (Check out this clip from the pilot, in which Teaspoon asks Buck to identify which tribes made each of three arrows.)

I believe the producers cast First Nations actors in most (if not all) the “Indian” roles. This is impossible to confirm 100%, because most of the “Indian” players do not have online biographies or IMDB entries. But producer Josh Kane talked about Navajo actors riding bareback in the pilot, and the individual actors on whom I have found any ethnic information are at least partially First Nations.

Buck has a near-lifelong friendship with Ike (Travis Fine), a white rider who can’t speak due to a bout with scarlet fever in early childhood  – they communicate through Plains Indian sign language. Ike was the only disabled character in the cast – which makes him one more than most shows feature. Interestingly, our regular cast and “good” guest stars are always able to converse with Ike with a minimum of effort (whereas some “bad” characters can’t be bothered). If they don’t know sign, Ike uses simple gestures or writing to convey his meaning. The message this sends is: you are an ass if you avoid accommodating someone who can’t do everything you can. It may be easier than you think, and it might end up rewarding you more than him.

Unfortunately, in the second season we see less of Ike, and by the third season, Travis Fine left the show because he felt the producers just weren’t utilizing his character. He was right. Ike got some very powerful storylines and was a wonderful character overall, but as MGM swapped out producers in later seasons, it seemed they just didn’t know what to do with him anymore.


Because TV has long insisted that every show must center on white heterosexual able-bodied guys, I find it difficult to fault individual shows for sticking to this universally imposed formula. Young Riders does tend to center more episodes and arcs on the characters who meet that description. But every single character on this show gets strong storylines that reveal him or her as a complete human being with particular strengths and weaknesses.


  1. Anemone says

    This may sound hypocritical from someone who wants more inclusion in these things, but I found when I first watched it that the variety of characters seemed too PC: a Native man and a black man and a disabled man and a woman all working on the same team. It actually felt a bit forced to me, since my impression is that normally people cluster a bit more with other people like them. Unless all the riders were outsiders in some way. I didn’t get that, though.

    I think it would have made more sense to me with two Natives or two blacks (with maybe only one a rider) rather than one of each. But maybe the show was actually more typical of what the real Wild West was like. (And maybe I’d see it differently now.)

    But yeah, it was a good show.

  2. sbg says




    Anemone, I know what you mean about it seeming forced – but was it that, or was it that someone was actually trying? I guess I can take forced diversity in that case, especially looking at the great sea of white that is on the air.

  3. Anemone says

    I figure that forced diversity is probably good for me. I can get used to it. I do wonder how realistic it was, though.

  4. says

    I do wonder how realistic it was, though.

    I don’t know if there’s any way to really answer that (given how spotty and unreliable records of the time tend to be), but there were actually female Pony Express riders. There were actually black cowboys. There were quite a lot of white/”Indian” bi-racial people, and Buck’s experience of discrimination from both sides seems to be typical, both historically and in modern day.

    The diversity of characters didn’t strike me as forced for one simple reason: all of the riders were there because they needed the money and/or they were trying to find a place for themselves in an unforgiving world. They were all misfits, and then they banded together as misfits do (esp. on TV). I do feel the characters may have been portrayed as a bit more broad-minded than people of that time may have been, a concession that made the show more relatable for kids in the 20th century. Maybe that’s part of what you’re remembering, too.

    But even if had struck me as forced, I’m not sure I can get too worked up about “forced diversity” when I consider how many shows have a forced lack of diversity by pretending the world’s population is about 75% male, completely free of disability, 100% heterosexual, etc.

  5. Robin says

    I had a definite girlcrush on Lou when this series was on. She got to run around with the boys and ride horses!

    I’m more familiar with Don Franklin from seaQuest, but I’m kind of chuffed (not to mention surprised) to learn that he was the first to play a black cowboy as a series regular. :)

  6. says

    We thought it was EXTREMELY ABRUPT and foolosh on the producer’s part to suddenly eliminate Emma and Sam the sherif.

    I would have paid GOOD MONEY to see at least a transitional episode of how they left.

    They could have done an episode of them getting married, her selling her place, Sam being sent to another town to be a governor .. SOMETHING… “Anything” cool like that. …

    Another cool episode would have been how they acquired/ found Noah. SUDDENLY he just appeared out of thin air. How does THAT work?

    I don’t know. The show just wasn’t the same after that abrupt missing link to the rest of the series.


    • Celtatheart says

      I have been watching The Young Riders recently, as I remember watching it in my preteen years. I always wanted to experience the “Wild West” because of it. To this day, it remains one of my favorite television shows. Lou was a definite role model for me.

      I never found the diversity on the show to be forced. I think there were so many positive messages delivered by the main cast, specifically in that this group of misfits (as mentioned before by another commenter) shared their experiences with one another regardless of race, religion, cultural differences, etc. They each had a lesson to teach. I wish there were more shows like The Young Riders on today.

      • ali says

        Where do you find episodes now? I’m in UK and it was shown at about 3am on a Saturday morning ( about 23 years ago?!?) so no one really remembers it here. But I loved it! ID love to watch it again… but have no idea where to find episodes.

        • says

          The DVDs are finally all out for Region 1 (North America). Season 1 is the only one that’s out in Region 2 as far as I can tell. I am not aware of it being on TV anymore, but maybe someone else had caught and will chime in here.

        • Celtatheart says

          I have been watching it on youtube, although the sound/video quality of some episodes is not very good. Also, you can go to, which links to Hulu. The picture quality is much better there. I decided I will have to break down and buy the seasons on DVD…I love it that much, and would enjoy watching over and over.

        • Taylor says

          I don’t know about in the UK but in the US you can watch the episodes for free on Hulu. There are a few commercials you have to watch, but they are pretty short.

  7. says

    I think there are a lot of people who do not know that things were not easy in that era and to be able to find people who were willing to work in those days wasn’t easy, whether they were right, wrong or indifferent, if they had willing workers they were hired. Another thing that some people are not aware of are the “Buffalo Soldiers” Solders were made up of old slave and African descent. They called them Buffalo because of the texture of their hair. Like our commercials we hear today, they were brave and strong and willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of civilizing and the chance to know that the relatives to the east that they were still alive. My ancestors were Texas Rangers, in fact one of them was one of the founding members. Now it is true that I LOVED that program and miss it, But I am so grateful that the network aired it, it gave most of us a taste of what it could be like to all be misfits in a way, could all work together for a cause we believed in.

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