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24 June 2006

"The Young Riders" (1989)

Stephen Baldwin (Cody), Josh Brolin (Hickok), Brett Cullen (Sam), Travis Fine (Ike), Melissa Leo (Emma), Ty Miller (The Kid), Gregg Rainwater (Buck), Yvonne Suhor (Lou), and Anthony Zerbe (Teaspoon)

This television series--ostensibly about six Pony Express riders and their derring-do--debuted in 1989 when I was in junior high. I fell in love instantly, because the show capitalized on what were my three main interests.

I was a burgeoning American history buff, having already extensively investigated the assassination plot against Lincoln, but this tipped me toward life-long pursuit. I was also a budding romantic, fascinated with happily-ever-after stories as I entered into adolescence. No thoughts of SEX and MEN yet, but certainly I was interested in love and boys. And then there was my constant attraction to strong female characters. Princess Leia and cartoon figures such as Wonder Woman, Cheetara, and Jem gave way to my obsessive fascination with Ellen Ripley, Vasquez and--to a lesser extent--the only significant male character, Hicks, in Aliens, and later Sarah Connor of the Terminator franchise. If an identifiable female presence could be found in any given film or television program, my interest became more acute because of her.

"The Young Riders" had it all. Not only did it feature a half dozen very fine cowboys, all between the ages of 21-25, there was also Lou. The character of Louise McCloud was an orphaned young woman who disguised herself as a boy in order to ride with the Express. She was pretty but not gorgeous. She was boyish with a flat chest, like an adolescent girl. She was smart, strong, and no one ever tried to leave her out of the action (at least in Season One). And after The Kid discovered the secret of her disguise in the first episode, thereby leading those two characters toward a series-long love affair, she absolutely became the object of my adoration.

I turned my friends on to the series, and we eventually took to signing our notes "TYR" and "GRHT" (Girls Ride Horses Too). I fell in love with The Kid. I learned everything there ever was to know about the Pony Express, completely exhausting every source in our library system. I wrote an entire episode of the show, the general theme of which was greatly realized in an episode called "Lady for a Night"--right down to the part about The Kid finding Lou's missing glasses. Casey thought I was a prescient goddess.

I lived for Thursday nights when the show aired on ABC. I began to listen to The Eagles' gunfighter-themed music from the mid-70s, and I switched off pop radio in favor of country (thereby completely missing Grunge). When my family drove cross-country to visit relatives in 1990, I was thrilled. We even stopped in Paso Robles (CA) where Josh Brolin was born! I thrived on the show's spirit for just under three years. And eventually, when it came time to write my master's thesis, I researched James Hickok, Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, and Jesse James. I mentioned "The Young Riders" on my dedication page, right next to my family; its influence on the specific direction of my academic interests was that profound.

So... how does it hold up after 15 years? Eh! The episodes I loved at the time--particularly ones that featured The Kid and Lou--remain very entertaining for me. Nostalgia for the girl I was permeates my view. "Pilot: The Kid," "A Good Day to Die," "Lady for a Night," "Bad Blood," "End of Innocence," "False Colors," "The Keepsake," and "Bulldog" were all great fun, and I will watch them again over the years. "Hard Times" featured a lot of The Kid, but it was a stale sort of prison break story that was not as fresh as I remembered. "Fall From Grace" is the best sort of campy espionage fun, particularly because of "One Life to Live" star Robin Strasser's turn as a villainous madam.

Other episodes fared none so well. Ike, Buck, Teaspoon--don't care! Never really did. At the time, I obsessively watched each new offering in the hopes of a storyline featuring my favorites, apparently relegating these less successful episodes (lickety-split) to history--always in the hopes of better luck the week following. "Speak No Evil," "Home of the Brave," "Black Ulysses," "Decoy," "Daddy's Girl," "Then There Was One," and the interminable season-ender "Gathering Clouds" (Parts I & II) were dull enough to prompt much fast-forwarding.

I am 30 now. The Kid is still a pretty young face, but I certainly do not lust after him like my pubescent self did. Jimmy, however... nice. Josh Brolin has not done a great deal since the show's cancellation, but he certainly had a way with his portrayal of Hickok. Calm, sarcastic, magnetic, honorable, tortured. The shows' production team knew this about Brolin, too, in that fully five episodes feature him as the lead character: "The Gunfighter," "Ten Cent Hero," "Blind Love," "Fall From Grace," and "Matched Pair." I did not realize it at the time (because what intellectual 13-year-old wants a bad-boy at that age?), but he had it all over The Kid. Still, all of that Jimmyness (particularly his obnoxious love interests) bored me.

Brolin was only 21 at the series' start and a little young for me now. Then I noticed myself watching Sam Cain. Sam! The marshal! Chiseled jaw. Keen eyes. WTF? I looked up Brett Cullen on IMDB and found out that at the time of "The Young Riders," he was 33, while my father was only 37. Now, as I watched these episodes, Brett Cullen is still 33 on film--which is how old Keven will be in September. Sweet! In the 15 years since this show aired, Sam Cain has gone from a (literal) father figure to a lust-worthy equal. How weird! A similar transformation took place with Emma, played by the fantastic and constantly-outclassing-her-peers Melissa Leo. She was 29 at the time, thus moving from a mother type to a sister figure. All of this perspective and maturity (on my part) made "The Man Behind the Badge" and "Unfinished Business"--back-story episodes that focused on Sam and Emma, respectively--more fun this time around.

I also found it amusing to see all of the guest stars that have since made more substantial names for themselves, most prominently (perhaps) being Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City" fame. She played a dowdy mail-order bride named Annie in "Gathering Clouds." I like to think that Ike married that sweet girl and went away to live a happy life with her, rather than getting his useless, über-sweet, mute self killed in season two. Oh well. Other guest stars included Nice Guy Eddie himself (the late Chris Penn), David Soul, Fisher Stevens, Jay O. Sanders, Rob Estes, Meg Foster, Roger Rees, Eddie Jones, Michael J. Pollard, Cliff de Young, and Bart the Bear.

So you will never get an accurate review of this series from me. It exists as its own historical document of my maturation and, as such, I contributed my excessive knowledge to the IMDB. All of the episode descriptions posted on IMDB for season one are mine, composed over the last six weeks. I like that very much! Histor...pop culture...the time-space continuum...all conflating!

And now, for a little Joe Bob Briggs. It's not Swayze-fu, but I like it:

Deaths (or being shot once and falling spectacularly): 181
Anachronistic Produce: 3
Villainous Englishmen: 2
Explosions: 19
Family Members Killed by Hickok: 2 (Lou's dad, The Kid's brother)
Pet Mice: 1
Historic Characters: 3 (Hickok, Cody, Alexander Majors)
Rapes: 1
Sweathouse Sessions: 3
People Who Found Out About Lou: 6 (all but Teaspoon and Sam)
Shirtless Folks: 11
Assaults on Emma's House: 2
Assaults on Sweetwater: 2
Failed Romances: 8
Kisses (chaste or otherwise): 40
Brawls (friendly or otherwise): 13
Contraptions Used to Liven Dull Plots: 2 (bicycle, baseball game)
Characters Who Survived Gunshot Wounds: Lou (2), Sam (2), Cody (1), The Kid (2), Ike (2), Teaspoon (2), Jimmy (4)

Season Two initiated a number of changes, few of which helped the show to any great extent. Leo and Cullen left the show, both of them forging successful careers outside of the Old West and leaving viewers to wonder what Sam and Emma's wedding must have been like. Don Franklin's Noah Dixon would arrive as the series' only permanent black character, and Clare Wren, as Rachel, would assume Emma's role as station mother--although with some ample bosoms to go with her sass. Ike would eventually die, only to be replaced by the far-reaching attempt to integrate yet another historic character: Jesse James. Horrible!

And then there was the continuing saga of The Kid and Lou. They would lose their virginity to each other, break up, get back together, fight, and eventually get married in the series finale, all despite his attempt to rein in her stubborn personality--a brand of possessiveness that irked me about those later episodes. I liked them wild and free and strong together, not tied up in petty jealousies like a damned soap opera. The innocent wonder of the first season was gone, leaving the telegraph, the Civil War, and changing tastes in the early 1990s to herald the show's inevitable demise. I moved on to high school, cars, romance novels, and X-Men to the point where I hardly grieved for the end of TYR's run on TV. I had a blast while it lasted...and lasted. And this lengthy trip down memory lane was a helluva ride.

Anonymous jmc said...

OMG! I loved this show, and had forgotten all about it! I totally wanted to be Lou. I crushed on Josh Brolin and on the marshall (my excuse for the older man/bad boy susceptibility is that I'm 3 years older than you. Bad boys are hawt when you're 15-16! (Although I'm less enchanted by them today.) And the marshall showed up later in one of my favorite films, Something to Talk About.

I'm kind of afraid to add these to my Netflix queue, because they'll never live up to the memory.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ack! Extra paren in there. And I can't go back and edit it. Sorry 'bout that.


Anonymous KristyLee said...

I too was obsessed with TYR and especially Kid and Lou. I used to fantasize about being in her shoes. Oh, this show brings back such happy memories. Bring on Seasons 2 and 3!!!!!

Does anyone know if any info has been released of their release dates? as I'd love to know.

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Sorry, kristylee -- no info on the other two seasons. I think the show jumped the shark when Ike died, so I'm not too shook up about seeing those later episodes again. Most of my fantasy and inspiration came from the initial shock of COOL from season one!

Anonymous Adya said...

I've always been in love with Jimmy/Josh...and i still am.... ;P

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed with most of what you said here, but how could you not care about Ike? He was by far the most complex character on the show, and was portrayed by a superb actor. He was completely underutilized, as was Buck. Ike, and his friendship with Buck, should have had a much more prominent role. I still can't believe that they killed him off!

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