Return of the TV Western

Westerns on TV fell out of fashion after their heyday in the Sixties, but new shows on American TV such as Justified and Hell on Wheels are spurring a revival

Sarah Hughes
Tuesday 15 November 2011 01:00

Slow-talking men with mysterious pasts, good-time gals and feisty frontierswomen, barroom brawlers and fast-fisted double talkers; it can only mean one thing – the television Western is back in fashion, and in a big way.

It's been five years since the last period Western – David Milch's dark-hearted Deadwood – finished and since then cable and network executives alike have run shy of what was increasingly seen as an old-fashioned genre.

Now that's all set to change with a record number of next season's on US TV tackling the Western (NBC alone has ordered three while the other major networks each have at least one on their slate). First out of the blocks, however, is AMC's Hell on Wheels, which started in the US on 7 November and will air on TCM in the UK next year.

"I think the reason that people are so attracted to the Western is that these people were tough," says Joe Gayton, who created Hell on Wheels alongside his brother, Tony. "They uprooted everything, went out and said we're going to do this. There's something about that sense of adventure that sets off a spark in audiences."

Certainly it's not surprising to find the Wild West back in fashion at a time when America feels uncertain about both its future and its self-image. The Western has always told America's ultimate origin myth and the idea of the US as a country of rugged individualists is an enduring one.

As Graham Yost, creator of the modern-day Western Justified, which proved a surprise critical and ratings hit, told the LA Times: "Raylan [Givens, the show's lead character] is a kind of no-nonsense hero: he's got some stuff in his past, he shoots people and gets into trouble. But he's not – as we're getting a lot on TV these days – a tortured anti-hero. He's a hero. He walks the walk." He also allows audiences to recapture a little lost cool, to pretend for an hour that they too could stride through Givens's mean streets with easy assurance.

Justified's success coupled with the fact that the genre remains popular on the big screen (the Coen Brother's remake of True Grit took almost $200m last year in addition to being a critical darling while everything from revisionist takes such as 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to the children's film Rango have packed out cinemas) has helped convince executives that the time is right for gunslingers to swagger back on the small screen.

In doing so they hope to hark back to the era when the Western was king. For throughout the 1950s and 1960s it was television's most popular genre with long-running hits such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger and Maverick dominating the small screen. Complaints from parent groups in the late 1960s over violence in television coupled with unease about the portrayal of Native Americans saw a decline in the number of cowboy shows on television, although CBS had a couple of big hits in the 1980s and 1990s with an acclaimed adaptation of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and the more populist Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and AMC itself did well with the much-praised mini-series Broken Trail in 2006.

Despite the success of Broken Trail, the Western has been largely absent from network television over the past decade (with Joss Whedon's cult space Western Firefly proving the notable exception), in part because many executives remain wary of how to tackle more troublesome issues. As it is, the Gaytons, who were boosted by the freedom provided by writing for cable, still admit that they had to bend history when writing the feisty widow Lily. "We badly wanted a strong female character but in all honesty, the history suggests that there weren't any in these sort of camps and towns," says Tony Gayton.

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That said, there's no denying that some of the Western's most powerful themes resonate today. The genre has always been a beguiling mix of low and highbrow culture, a place where straightforward shoot-'em-ups collide with moral turbulence and redemption is hard won. For, like the gangster drama, the Western is primarily concerned with reinvention. Whether we are watching Tony Soprano battle in suburban New Jersey or Deadwood's Al Swearengen carve out his frontier kingdom, the central tune remains the same: is it possible to truly slough off a tainted past?

Both genres also hold a mirror up to America's vision of itself. Yet while the old-fashioned Western celebrated that self-image, portraying the Wild West as a land where good guys won and bad guys were vanquished, the modern Western offers a more nuanced take. As Anson Mount, who plays a vengeance-obsessed Civil War veteran on Hell on Wheels, recently said: "I don't think American audiences are in the position of thinking about storylines in terms of hero and villain any more. I think that kind of died out with the early Westerns."

The elephant in the room here is Deadwood, which ran for three brutal seasons between 2004-2006. David Milch's show exploded Hollywood's cowboy tropes giving us a venal town where the good guys frequently did bad and the bad guys often acted for the greater good. As such, it cast a long shadow and many of the new Westerns will inevitably face comparisons. Indeed, The New York Times has already scathingly branded Hell on Wheels "Deadwood for Dummies" while others sneered that AMC drama lacks the earlier show's authenticity, the sense that the characters' grime runs more than skin-deep.

"Deadwood was a great show but we're not anything like Deadwood," says Joe Gayton. "That show was built on artifice, the dialogue was very stylised, it felt almost Shakespearean. We're aiming to make something more accessible, something that harks back to classic Westerns and the spaghetti Westerns of the 1970s."

And regardless of how the new shows stack up (and some, such as Hangtown, which is written by the creator of Battlestar Galactica, and a revisionist take on the Hole in the Wall Gang from the award-winning team behind Friday Night Lights, sound very promising indeed), one thing is certain, this time next year we'll be heading home to that range once again.

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