Remember the television Western? Those old black and white or technicolor programs your grandfather was always watching? Titles like Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Rawhide, Bonanza and many others made this genre the third most popular of the 60s and early 70s.
At the height of their popularity, in 1960, 29 Western programs dominated the airwaves. By the 80s, however, Westerns had all but vanished from the television landscape. Though they would remain popular in movie theaters, weekly visits with our cowboy heroes were all but gone.
I can barely remember any representation of traditional television Westerns as a kid. The 90s were awash with situation comedies, police procedurals, and (vomit) the birth of reality TV as we know it.
AMC has led the way in reviving this once dead or dying style of weekly story telling with two programs.
The first is Hell on Wheels (which is the second best name for a roller derby team I have ever heard). Hell on Wheels is the story of Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier tracking down the Union soldiers who killed his wife and burned his farm. Bohannon inadvertently lands a job as foreman of a company attempting to build the transcontinental railroad and uses his new found resources to seek his vengeance.
As a Western, Hell on Wheels is gritty. The tension of reconstruction and the uneasy brotherhood of a nation are on full display. The dusty Western landscapes are traded for Midwestern mud.
One of my favorite things about this show is its ability to make you question your grasp of the era. It strives to show heroes and villains on all sides. Things post Civil War are hardly black and white, or blue and grey as it were.
My second favorite (if less traditional) Western is The Walking Dead. Many of my friends would disagree that this post-apocalyptic drama based on the bestselling graphic novels of same name could be classified as a Western.
The show centers on Rick Grimes, a sheriff’s deputy, who after being shot, wakes up in an abandoned hospital (abandoned by the living, that is) to find the world is populated by zombies. Rick goes on to lead a group of survivors either in killing zombies or hiding from them while scavenging for supplies in and around Atlanta.
The plot is hardly standard Western fare… or is it?
In Rick Grimes, we have the reluctant lawman trying to shepherd his group out of harm’s way while the savages are all around them. The southern Gothic landscapes and booming silence feel as grey as the blurred lines between right and wrong brought about by their current circumstances. It is a story of damaged heroes and gunslingers trying to reclaim their lives in this new frontier.
So, welcome back to TV, Westerns!