When was the last time Harrison Ford starred in a good film? Make no mistake, Ford’s standing as a movie star is unimpeachable, but worthwhile roles have largely eluded him in the 21st century when he isn’t dipping back into the well of notable IP from his heyday. Through no fault of his own, one of the franchises that transformed Ford into an A-lister, Star Wars, has been influential in the industry-wide shift toward cinematic universes, legacy sequels, and a seemingly endless string of remakes that are turning movie stars like him into a rare commodity. In a strange way, Ford became a victim of his own success. To answer my own question, his last good movie was arguably Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited follow-up to Ridley Scott’s cult classic, in which the actor reprises his role as Rick Deckard. You’d have to go much further back to find Ford starring in a worthy original film. (I dare say not since What Lies Beneath.)
Amid such mediocrity, you could forgive Ford for phoning it in several times in the past two decades—on more than one occasion, he’s half-joked about taking jobs for the paycheck—but the fact that he’s still cranking out movies is commendable in and of itself. (The fifth Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, will arrive in theaters a couple of weeks before Ford turns 81.) In the twilight of his career, Ford has shown no signs of slowing down, even if it means taking his talents to a medium that’s become increasingly appealing to movie stars: television.
With the exception of Showtime’s 2014 docuseries Years of Living Dangerously, where Ford uses his celebrity status to advocate for protecting our planet from the ongoing effects of climate change, the actor has spent decades away from the small screen. (Considering one of his last performances that aired on television was the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special, I guess you can’t blame him.) But now Ford is starring in two shows in quick succession: the Yellowstone prequel series 1923, which premiered on the Paramount Network in December, and the new Apple TV+ comedy Shrinking, which will release its first two episodes on Friday. The roles on these shows couldn’t be more different from one another—the respective timelines are literally a century apart, for starters—but they highlight one of the most underappreciated aspects of Ford’s career: a willingness to try new things instead of being pigeonholed.
Let’s start with 1923, which, on the surface, fits more into Ford’s usual wheelhouse. In the latest extension of Taylor Sheridan’s small-screen empire, Ford plays Jacob, the Dutton patriarch whose land in Montana will one day become the largest contiguous ranch in the United States. Unfortunately, Jacob’s generation of Duttons is less concerned about expansion than mere survival, as prohibition and an economic depression threaten the family’s livelihood. (There are also some pesky Irish neighbors encroaching on their property, whose sheep threaten to eat all the grass meant for the Duttons’ livestock.)
With Ford joined by former Mosquito Coast costar Helen Mirren, who plays Jacob’s stern wife, Cara, the star wattage behind 1923 is one of the show’s biggest selling points. (I’m ashamed to admit that Yellowstone is one of my TV blind spots, but I tuned into 1923 solely off the evocative imagery of Ford and Mirren as a ranching power couple.) As a showcase for Ford, 1923 gives the actor a chance to lean into his instincts as an outdoorsman, playing the kind of character who not only doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, but embraces the challenge. (This was also used to great effect in Witness, Peter Weir’s 1985 thriller that gave Ford his lone Oscar nomination as a Philadelphia detective hiding within an Amish community from corrupt police officers.) For an actor who not only has a carpentry background, but also owns an 800-acre property in Wyoming, riding on horseback while running a ranch fits Ford like a glove. If Ford was waiting for the right opportunity before appearing in his first major television role, it sure looks like he found it.
Even without watching Yellowstone, the show’s reputation for racking up an enormous body count precedes it, and that certainly extends to 1923. (The series premiere features a British woman on an African safari getting jumped by a CGI leopard while she’s trying to pee, an early contender for the WTF moment of the year.) Jacob mercilessly hanging Irish farmers over sheep-related squabbles is a bit much, but the gravitas that Ford brings to the role helps ground the proceedings. In that respect, Jacob isn’t just another member of the ever-expanding Dutton family tree, but part of the lineage of Ford protagonists—from an ass-kicking president (Air Force One) to a CIA analyst in over his head (Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger)—in which the actor’s gruff charisma elevates the somewhat silly material.
Unsurprisingly, there isn’t much connective tissue between what Ford brings to the table in 1923 and what’s asked of him in Shrinking. Coming from the Ted Lasso team of Bill Lawrence and Brett “Roy Kent” Goldstein—as well as Jason Segel, who pulls double duty as the star of the series—Shrinking follows grieving therapist Jimmy Laird (Segel) as he embarks on a radical mission to let his patients know exactly how he feels about their problems. (One example: Jimmy tells a woman that she should leave her emotionally abusive husband, or he’ll stop being her therapist.) Ford fits into the story as Paul Rhoades, Jimmy’s no-nonsense coworker and mentor figure who believes this sort of boundary breaking will come back to bite him.
Based on the show’s marketing, Shrinking looks like a comedy that would primarily focus on how Jimmy’s advice affects his clients and the way it relates to his own grieving process after losing his wife in a car accident. But while the series premiere does spend a decent amount of time laying the groundwork for Jimmy becoming a “psychological vigilante,” Shrinking ultimately settles into a rhythm as a feel-good (therapeutic?) hangout show with occasional moments of pathos: a simple, enjoyable formula that cocreator Lawrence has been tinkering with going back to Scrubs and Cougar Town. Of course, none of Lawrence’s comedies ever had someone like Ford, whose lack of familiarity with this kind of material is exemplified by the fact that he didn’t even know who Segel was before joining the project. (What I would give to be a fly on the wall the first time that Ford watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall.)
Shrinking is able to mine plenty of laughs from the inherent absurdity of putting Ford in ridiculous situations, like when Paul takes too many weed gummies and accidentally interrupts a marriage proposal while munching on a giant bag of Doritos. (There is also a gag about Paul not knowing what “raw-dogging” means, which, again, is hilarious in part because we now live in a world where Indiana Jones said “raw-dogging.”) Naturally, Ford is just as engaging when the show gets serious, whether Paul is encouraging Jimmy to stop running away from the pain of his wife’s death or reconnecting with his estranged daughter, Meg (Lily Rabe), after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Most importantly, Ford’s presence doesn’t overshadow the rest of Shrinking as much as his character is the glue that helps hold the series together. Paul spends one-on-one time with the majority of the ensemble across Shrinking’s first season, deepening his relationship with a character in one moment and delivering a deadpan punchline in the next. Given how terse he can be in real-life interviews, it should come as no surprise that Ford thrives with blunt, bone-dry humor.
A straight-up comedy is definitely a curveball in relation to Ford’s larger body of work, but Shrinking proves it’s a pitch he’s capable of landing in the strike zone—misunderstandings about “raw-dogging” and all. Along with 1923 and the new Indiana Jones movie coming in the summer, Ford is kicking off 2023 with some style, and there are more high-profile projects on the horizon. He will soon join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking over for the late William Hurt as Thaddeus Ross in the next Captain America film, New World Order, due out in 2024. (Ross does transform into the Red Hulk in the comics—it’s exactly what it sounds like—so there’s a chance we’ll see Ford as a yoked CGI monstrosity; what a time to be alive.)
Considering Ford’s apathetic—if not downright hostile—relationship with Star Wars, his willingness to play in the sandbox of another multibillion-dollar franchise is genuinely unexpected. “I’ve done a lot of things,” Ford explained on the Yellowstoners podcast when asked about becoming part of the MCU. “I now want to do some of the things I haven’t done.” That very concise philosophy also explains the actor’s recent foray into television, which has underlined that Harrison Ford remains a star—no matter the size of the screen.