TV and the Western
It’s hard to believe, but starting in 1947 (Howdy Doody), with very few exceptions, there has been at least one Western on TV every season. In 1984, the genre took the year off (probably due to Little House fatigue), and there was some downtime after Deadwood ended and before Justified premiered (2007-2009), but other than those four years, some form of Western, be it traditional, revisionist, steampunk, or sci-fi hybrid, has always graced our screens. Here is a brief rundown of the history and trends of the Western in American television.
In the 1950s and 60s, Westerns ruled the air. There were at least 98 distinct shows during the 50s and 89 in the 60s. In 1959, there were 26 Westerns during primetime alone, and keep in mind that these were the days of three-channel TV. Shows such as The Lone Ranger, Have Gun—Will Travel, and Maverick were huge hits and Gunsmoke and Bonanza premiered and became decade-spanning institutions. Westerns ran the gamut, from cartoon shorts to puppet adventure shows to comedies to dramas that ran for anything from 30-90 minutes. Most were traditional in tone and style, be they family dramas, action-packed adventure shows, or slapstick comedy, though a few strayed from this, including The Wild, Wild West, which introduced fans to the world of steampunk when it premiered in 1965.
During the late 60s, due to pressure from parent groups over increasing violence on television, the networks took a couple years off of making new Westerns. By 1971, however, they were back at it; each network introduced a new hour-long drama- Alias Smith and Jones on ABC, Cade’s County on CBS, and Nichols on NBC. Met with mixed reviews, these shows did not buoy American interest in Westerns back to its previous level. As a whole, the 70s saw a dramatic downturn in the production of and interest in Westerns, with only 20 new shows produced. However, several of these programs made significant impacts on popular culture, particularly Kung Fu (1972) and Little House on the Prairie (1974). These shows represent a marked difference in the genre- most of all, and probably due to the lingering effects of the earlier parental protestations, both programs were actively anti-violence. Caine from Kung Fu used violence only as a last resort (though that last resort did seem to come up quite a bit), and then never used guns, and Little House was a family show, steeped in traditional values and lacking the action that for so long defined the genre.
Little House stayed on the air until 1983, when television finally seemed to need a breather. Wildside had a brief run in 1985, but it was animation that brought the genre back to popularity. The second half of the decade saw the emergence of animated sci-fi/western hybrids, including The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, BraveStarr, and Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs. A new generation was introduced to the genre through these more modern takes on its most traditional form, the half hour action serial. Also significant was the critical and popular success of Lonesome Dove, which is still considered one of the best Westerns ever produced. It was a huge success for CBS, perhaps prompting their later interest in and support of the genre
The 90s saw several unsuccessful attempts at live action steampunk and sci-fi takes on the genre, with The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and Legend, among others, but it was the more traditional Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and the procedural Walker, Texas Ranger, both on CBS, that connected with audiences. Both were carried by charismatic lead performances by actors with strong fan bases, Jane Seymour and Chuck Norris, and both programs gave viewers what they were looking for- straightforward shows with traditional values and a bit of action to keep things interesting.
Since the turn of the century, Westerns have been far less prominent on American TV. After the glut of westerns in the 50s and 60s, the genre evened out, with 15-20 new shows per decade through the 90s. After 2000, however, this changed, with only 7 new genre entries produced. Though the Aughts saw the creation of two of the most critically praised Western TV shows, Firefly and Deadwood, neither caught on the way they deserved to. Firefly, a sci-fi western, was off the air in a matter of months and while Deadwood, a gritty revisionist drama, managed to get three seasons, it didn’t bring in a big enough of an audience to justify its high price tag to the network. After Deadwood’s cancellation in 2006, there were no Westerns left on television**, other than a few made-for-TV movies, and it wasn’t until 2010 that the genre reemerged, albeit slightly altered, in Justified, a modern police drama with Western sensibilities.
**Though a strong argument could be made that Supernatural or even Battlestar Galactica are in many ways Westerns, that seemed like a topic for a different article.
Though the popularity of TV Westerns has waned over time, there is clearly something about the genre that speaks to the American experience. Whether it is the plight of the settler, struggling against a seemingly uncaring terrain and impossible odds, the sense of community drawn from a group of strangers forced to rely on each other for survival, or the simple fact that gunfights are almost always cool, something about this genre has spanned generations and withstood the whims of popular culture in a way that other genres have not. Perhaps there is something about the Western that we find comforting, welcoming it into our homes and sharing it with our families week after week while the same genre has had far less consistent popularity in film. The decline in interest is significant, however. While the drastic change in the production rate after the 60s can probably be traced to increased costs, as viewers came to demand higher production values, as well as drastic shifts in public opinion and values during the time, the renewed dwindling of interest since 2000 is troubling, at least to this genre fan. The Western will never disappear from TV completely though, and the reduction in the number of shows produced has seemed to correlate with a rise in quality, so perhaps this change is for the best. What do you predict for the future of the Western on American television? Please post your thoughts below!