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.
RACE, ABILITY AND MORE
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.” (Correction: perhaps not the first?) 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.
AND, OF COURSE, WHITE BOYS
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.