Whatever happened to the TV Western?

A quick glance of the new season sees yet another glut of police and lawyer shows. You know the formula. Dead body in the first five minutes followed by endless questioning, an autopsy or two, more questioning and the resolution. Yawn inducing just writing about it. We need someone to take a chance and produce a retro TV Western series. Not in the style of recent examples such as Deadwood. I found that far too negative and depressing. We need a series in the classic 1960s style. No sepia tones or cursing. We need positive, uplifting stories. We need heroes to return to TV. Not cynical. world weary anti-heroes in the Eastwood mold, but heroes in The Virginian or Cheyenne mold.

We all know the world has grown more cynical since the 1960s. But are we to expect decades of Law & Order and CSI spin-offs until we die? Some producer has to take a chance on another TV Western show that isn’t saccharin and isn’t cynical. A show that entertains in the classic Western style.

Author: PGreen

Published work in U.S.A. for McFarland & Co. Inc. : A History of Television’s The Virginian 1962-1971 (2006, 2009 Softcover edition) Pete Duel : A Biography (2007, 2009 Large Print edition; Kindle edition) Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns (2009) Jennifer Jones : Life and Films (2011)

18 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the TV Western?”

  1. I do agree, and like you, I’m fed up with all the ‘law and disorder’ stuff! Sadly, I see they’re coming up with a couple of CIA-type series and one with a black president (now that’s not very imaginative), so it appears to me we’re going to be going from ‘worse to worser’**, which is why I’m still glad there’s PBS and C-Span.

    And when it comes to movies, forget 90% of those too – I refuse to ‘dumb down’ and then pay $14 at the door to do so.

    **misspelling intended (smile).

    1. There is a new adaptation of True Grit due to be released soon Diane. I’ve seen the trailer and it looks okay. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn. Although I would have preferred a new Western rather than a re-make. But most films are aimed at a teen audience and the introduction of 3-D spells death for most serious films. It’s all about the “Wow!” effect these days.

  2. Hi Paul

    I agree 100%
    But a western series needs realisam and the great cattle drives, it needs a rugged and atmospheric realisam,that captures the atmosphere and authenticity of a by-gone-age.
    I think such a show today with the interaption of commercials would be a grim undertaking to watch-
    I think that a tongue-in-cheek western series like Alias Smith and Jones would not be the answer.
    So sadly I think we have said goodbye to the T.V western-

    1. Economics makes it increasingly difficult to film a TV Western series as you say Michael. That’s why we mainly see mini-series and TV movies in recent times. They did produce “Deadwood” but I have to admit I hated the excessive cursing and general atmosphere of the show.

      The TV commercials make no difference because all the classic TV Westerns survived commercial breaks. In fact without sponsorship from advertisers no TV Western could have been made in the first place. It’s only those who watched in the UK on the BBC who were lucky enough to see entire episodes commercial free in the 1960s. And of course some cable TV companies (all subscription based unfortunately) are commercial free today.

      Is the TV Western series dead? Well as I write it is. But If we have a few hit Western movies things could change. Nothing is static in Hollywood and genres that are apparently dead have returned to life in the past.

  3. Hi Paul
    I think if any person from our generation compiled a list of their 10 favourite films at least 4 would be westerns.I think todays generation would struggle to put 1 on the list.
    The virginian was about industrialisation and modernisation and the charactors having to accept that the days of the old rugged west were over and to change with the times.
    In a similar way T.V has changed from the day of the western and the world has changed with it. But we have a memory todays T.V fans will never have. We have a memory of the dust in our eyes as we were memorised by sitting to close to that T.V screen as we listernd to “Rolling Rolling Rawhide, keep those doggies moving Rawhide………”
    It is my personal belief that a modern T.V western could not emulate the scale and grandeur of the major western movies such as Red River,Hondo, Overload Stage Raiders, The Man From Laramie,High Noon, Who Shot Liberty Vallence, The Magnificent Seven, The Hell Bent Kid ect ect ect
    P.S Sorry if I have taken to much of your time bycommenting to much on your blogs this week.

    1. Leave as many comments as you wish Michael. Each generation has their heroes. Sadly most people under a certain age no longer have Western heroes. In my mother’s day it was Hopalong Cassidy. She watched his films at her local cinema in Ireland as a youngster. When I watched Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers I found them old fashioned in the 1960s. Each new generation tends to dismiss the previous generation as old fashioned.
      And sadly for most youngsters today Westerns are part of their mother’s or grandmother’s heritage rather than their own. Mixing the Western with supernatural or science fiction elements in the Weird Western genre has been an attempt to make the Western more relevant to today’s audience. As you know I wrote a book about it.

      It’s still something of a mystery why the Western faded from TV. Some say every story had been told. But look at the cop shows today. Most imitate each other and recycle plots. Yet that genre is still thriving.

      Maybe technology has made the Western irrelevant to youngsters. In a cop show you can incorporate iPhones, laptops, etc. In other words the genre can evolve with each new decade. The classic Western is stuck in one time period in the latter decades of the 19th century. And to many youngsters that spells boredom.

      But to the “oldies” the Western will always entrance.

  4. Hi Paul
    Your mum was from an era that needed to turn their back on the grimness of post-war britain-and Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Randolph Scott, or Roy Rogers were apart of what is called “The Cinema Generation”
    We were of an another era the “Television Generation”…..But most of all your mums generation and ours loved Westerns .
    Maybe your grandmother watched Gary Cooper as the Virginian, your mum Joel McCrea, and we watched James Drury, A later generation has had a more recent adaption of the film (But I forget the actors name who played the Virginian)

    1. Believe it or not my grandmother loved to watch Clint Walker in “Cheyenne” Michael. So did my entire family, including myself. TV Westerns impacted all generations in their prime.

      Bill Pullman is the name you’re looking for. The TV adaptation was a dull mediocre film that’s rarely repeated.

  5. Hi Paul,
    Count me in as someone who thinks a 60’s style western still could work today. Given that there is nothing like it on television these days it might actually come across as fresh and original as well as tapping in to a large segment of the viewing public that has turned off TV with all the junk on air these days.
    It would take a committed producer to nuture and guide it and convince the networks to take a chance, but I believe it could still be done. Said producer would also need to find writers with a respect and love of the traditional western to prevent it from becoming tounge in cheek or a parody. And agreed, leave out the sepia tones, the cursing, and the ever present “shaky cam” look that makes television viewing hard to take nowadays! Use traditional filmaking techniques and shoot it entirely on location (New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado?), and maybe, like ‘The Virginian’ and ‘Cimarron Strip’ (an underrated western series IMHO) give it a 90 minute running time that could develop great stories.
    I really believe there is a large audience who has tired of flippant anti-heroes or cynical urban types and wants to see return of traditional heroes to the small screen. Hopefully someone in Hollywood also recognizes this and will be willing to take a gamble.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jim. Yes I also believe the anti-hero is turnng full cycle and is becoming a tired cliche. We need a new bright and positive approach to TV drama. I watched five minutes of “Deadwood” a few nights ago and turned it off. Within that five minutes Ian McShane’s character spoke the “F” word over a dozen times. Slit a guy’s throat from ear to ear. Had sex with a woman and told her she could do with losing some weight as the actress playing the woman just lay topless in bed and said nothing. Meanwhile a man spat in another man’s face. It was all so depressing I had no desire to continue watching.
      We need more optimism and to stop wallowing in degredation and mindless violence and cynicism. And like you Jim I think a 60s style Western could work. We just need a producer and network with vision.

  6. Hi Paul
    I think if a network has real vision it needs to generate an interest before making a new western series.
    I would suggest a remarkable documentary series (As the pilot) where an interest in the west is created by an authentic telling of the west from its lawlessness and its adventures with outlaws and desperados and rustlers.
    I mean if that documentary was done right and coverd the early days of outlawry in America to the Chisholm Trail to The Silver Hills to The Wild Bunch. Well there is enough material in-betweeen to keep even the most demanding viewer fixated.
    To clarify my thinking I think todays audience needs first to be educated on the wild west.

    1. The History Network broadcasts the occassional documentary on the real-life Old West Michael. Something the major networks would never do. Documentaries are a dead art form on NBC, CBS and ABC unless it’s about a gruesome murder.
      Pilots demand INSTANT ratings. A documentary pilot would kill any show before it was given a chance. American TV is cutthroat. No room for low ratings.

  7. Thanks for that Paul.
    Its beyound my comprehension and understanding but Leno and Letterman are huge in Sweden.(Even 6 months out of date) as are Friends, Seinfelt Elaine and series I choose to forget.
    All I can say is these shows are watched by a mature and thinking audience such as qualified doctors (Who work in accident and emergery)and refugees who have lost loved ones in war situations in their homelands.
    I just dont get it.(And I have tryed)

    1. I’m curious to know, Paul, if you asked Frank Price during your interviews for the book whether he thought a traditonal style western could be produced for network television today? It would be interesting to get a Hollywood insiders take, especially from someone like Price who worked in the genre.

      1. I did talk to Mr. Price about the current state of the TV Western Jim and I can tell you he was not a fan of “Deadwood.” Regarding a show such as “The Virginian” working today he mentioned the budget would be too huge. It was huge back in 1962! James Drury told me much of the open land that was available for filming has since been developed. It’s a different world today.
        Next we come to the actual shooting schedule. 75 minutes of film every 9 days approx. 32 episodes a season. Unheard of today and impractical. Many directors who worked on “The Virginian” came out of Hollywood – some from the old Republic serials. They knew how to handle stress and work quickly.

        I’ve seen attempts at reviving the traditional Western on Hallmark but they venture into sentimentality too often. More “Little House on the Prairie” style than a standrard Western. I’ll give Hallmark thumbs up for trying but even they appear to have given up the ghost recently.

  8. Thanks for the insights, Paul. I have had a number of friends recommend ‘Deadwood’ to me knowing I’m such a western fan, but I have always been leery of it, and your comments and those of Price have only confirmed my worst suspicions. So, I may take a pass on checking that series out.

    It always amazes now how many episodes a season a network show, like ‘The Virginian’ would run back thirty/forty years ago. Not sure what the number is per season these days but I’d imagine it’s half that.

    I agree with you 100% on the Hallmark Channel Westerns. Give them credit for attempting to keep the genre alive on television, but most have left me disappointed and underwhelmed.

  9. Sorry to go off-topic; I didn’t know where else to post this. There’s a movie scheduled on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) next Monday night, Oct. 25 (check your local listings) called ‘The Magnificent Yankee’. It’s a biography (based on a play, I think) of jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. One of the characters in the movie is none other than Owen Wister! Holmes and Wister apparently were good friends.

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