'1883' review: Rides tall in the saddle

Too late, Elsa learned why reading by candelight in a covered wagon was frowned upon. Photos: Handout

If 1883, the Yellowstone prequel limited series, had a subtitle, it must surely be A Million Ways To Die In The West.

Like that 2014 Seth MacFarlane Western comedy, 1883 deals a lot with death, which comes suddenly, without reason, and not caring if "deserve" has anything to do with it. Unlike that movie, however, there's nothing funny about dying on this show.

I have only a passing familiarity with Yellowstone, the acclaimed Kevin Costner-starring series – viewing the occasional episode and marvelling at how Costner's rancher patriarch John Dutton and his family seem able to "justifiably" shoot anyone they feel like in this day and age and not face any consequences. (Maybe they're still counting up to a million.)

Chalk it up to missing the initial run on Astro's Paramount Network and not being bothered to follow the reruns because of a glaring lack of season and episode numbers – let alone titles – in the listings (hey, it's 2023, this kind of vital data omission is inexcusable).

But I signed right up for 1883, with its blazing guns, cattle drives, wagon trains and steely-eyed staredowns, all the staples of one of my favourite genres ever.

'You tell 'em I'm coming, and Hell's coming with me!... woohoo, did I say that as impactfully as Kurt Russell?''You tell 'em I'm coming, and Hell's coming with me!... woohoo, did I say that as impactfully as Kurt Russell?'

It's a hard-nosed Western tale that does not pull any punches, adds to the whole Yellowstone "generational saga" mythology (making it like Centennial, only told in a jumbled-up order), and is sparse but powerful in the dialogue and narration department.

It follows the post-Civil War struggles of the Dutton family, namely former Confederate soldier James (Tim McGraw), his wife Margaret (Faith Hill), their teenage daughter Elsa (Isabel May, Run Hide Fight) and little son John (Audie Rick).

Leaving their past in Tennessee behind, the family heads to Texas and joins up with an Oregon-bound wagon train led by grizzled veteran Shea Brennan (grizzled veteran Sam Elliott) and his loyal friend Thomas (Arrowverse veteran LaMonica Garrett).

Narrated by Elsa and starting with a sphincter-clenching moment where she faces marauding Native Americans amid carnage and burning wagons, 1883 is (up to Episode Six viewed, of 10) mainly the story of her maturation in the unforgiving American West, with the other principal characters given their due share of airtime – and all put to effective use.

'I dunno about sitting tall in the saddle but after a few dozen cowboy roles, I sure am sore in the saddle!''I dunno about sitting tall in the saddle but after a few dozen cowboy roles, I sure am sore in the saddle!'

May is clearly the beacon to which show creator Taylor Sheridan (who, besides creating Yellowstone and its other prequel 1923, also wrote the riveting Sicario) wants to draw the viewer, showing us the West through her wide-eyed wonder that all too often becomes tinted red (from blood as well as rage).

As a counterpoint, we also see the unfolding journey through the tired and bereaved eyes of Shea, a role so tailor-made for Elliott that you can't imagine anyone else in those boots.

With James so obsessed about keeping his family safe at all costs, it sometimes falls to Shea to provide Elsa with the sage fatherly advice she needs, and their scenes together have a heartfelt wistful, respectful quality.

From May to Elliott, Garrett to McGraw and Hill, It's hard to think of an ensemble that has inhabited their respective roles as convincingly as this cast, even the guest stars (including Billy Bob Thornton as a stone cold killer of a real-life marshal in the series opener, a really famous chap in a cameo at the start of the second episode, and his wife in an amusing whisky-fuelled scene with Hill later on).

It's precisely because these characters are so deftly given life that their fates start to matter to us, and if these destinies seem harsh and unfair at times, heck, that only further illustrates how immersive this endeavour has turned out to be.

While we may bemoan the fact that this is only a limited series ("a 10-hour movie with an ending", as Sheridan has described it), and its companion 1923 (with Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren) a two-season, 16-episode affair; there's still the ongoing Yellowstone (back next month) and an 1883 spin-off!

Yes, genre fans won over by this one can look forward to 1883: The Bass Reeves Story, based on the legendary African-American lawman who arrested more than 3,000 fugitives, shot 14 in self-defence, and was never injured by gunfire. Where do I sign up?

The final two episodes of 1883 air at 11pm on Jan 30 and 31 on the Paramount Network (Astro Ch 713).

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A million ways to die in the West

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