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TV Westerns

TV Westerns

See Also: List of TV Westerns

Television Westerns are a sub-genre of the Western in which stories are set primarily in the later half of the 19th century in the American Old West, Western Canada and Mexico during the period from about 1860 to the end of the so-called "Indian Wars."

Cheyenne TitleWhen television becomes popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, TV westerns quickly become an audience favorite.  The peak year for television westerns is 1959, with 26 such shows airing during prime-time.  Traditional Westerns fade in popularity in the late 1960s, while new shows fused Western elements with other types of shows, such as family drama, mystery thrillers, and crime drama.  In the 1990s and 2000s, hour-long westerns and slickly packaged made-for-TV movie westerns are introduced.  As well, new elements are once again added to the Western formula, such as the Western-science fiction show Firefly, created by Joss Whedon in 2002.

Radio and Film Antecedents

The Saturday Afternoon Matinee on the radio are a pre-television phenomenon in the US which often feature western series.  Film westerns turn Audie Murphy, Tom Mix, and Johnny Mack Brown into major idols of a young audience, plus "Singing cowboys" such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Rex Allen. Each cowboy have a co-starring horse such as Rogers' Golden Palomino, Trigger, who becomes a star in his own right.

Other B-movie series are Lash LaRue and the Durango Kid. Herbert Jeffreys, as Bob Blake with his horse Stardust, appear in a number of movies made for African American audiences in the days of segregated movie theaters.  Bill Pickett, an African American rodeo performer, also appears in early western films for the same audience.

1940s and 1950s

When the popularity of television explodes in the late 1940s and 1950s, westerns quickly become a staple of small-screen entertainment.  The first, on June 24, 1949, is the Hopalong Cassidy show, at first edited from the films made by William Boyd.  Many B-movie Westerns air on TV as time fillers, while a number of long-running TV Westerns become classics in their own right.  Notable TV Westerns include Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Laramie, Have Gun, Will Travel, Bonanza, The Virginian, Wagon Train, The Big Valley, Maverick, The High Chaparral, The Gene Autry Show, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, and many others.

The peak year for television westerns is 1959, with 26 such shows airing during prime-time. In one week in March 1959, eight of the top ten shows are westerns. Increasing costs of production (a horse cost up to $100 a day) leads to most action half hour series vanishing in the early 1960s to be replaced by hour long television shows, increasingly in color.  Two unusual westerns series of this era are Zorro, set in early California under Spanish rule, and the British/Australian western Whiplash set in 1850/60's Australia with four scripts by Gene Roddenberry.

Late 1960s through 1980s

Traditional Westerns begin to disappear from television in the late 1960s and early 1970s as color television becomes universal.  1968 is the last season any new traditional Westerns debuted on television. By 1969, after pressure from parental advocacy groups who claim Westerns are too violent for television, all three of the major networks ceased airing new Western series.  The two last traditional Westerns, Death Valley Days and Gunsmoke, end their runs in 1975.  This may have been the result of an ongoing trend toward more urban-oriented programming that occurs in the early 1970s known as the "rural purge", though only two Westerns (NBC's The Virginian and The High Chaparral) are canceled in the peak season of the purge in 1971. Bonanza ends its run in 1973.

While the traditional Westerns mostly die out in the late 1960s, more modernized Westerns, incorporating story concepts from outside the traditional genre, begin appearing on television shortly thereafter.  The Wild Wild West, which runs from 1965 to 1969, combines Westerns with heavy use of steam punk and an espionage-thriller format in the spirit of the recently popular James Bond franchise.  The limited-run McCloud, which premiers in 1970, is essentially a fusion of the sheriff-oriented western with the modern big-city crime drama. Hec Ramsey is a western whodunit mystery series.  Cimarron Strip, a lavish 90-minute 1967 series stars Stuart Whitman as a U.S. Marshal, is canceled after a single season primarily because of its unprecedented expense.  Little House on the Prairie is set on the frontier in the time period of the western, but is essentially a family drama.  Kung Fu is in the tradition of the itinerant gunfighter westerns, but the main character is a Shaolin monk, the son of an American father and a Chinese mother, who fights only with his formidable martial art skill.  The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams is a family adventure show about a gentle mountain man with an uncanny connection to wildlife who helps others who visit his wilderness refuge.

Little House on the Prairie is an American one-hour dramatic television program that airs on the NBC network from September 11, 1974 to March 21, 1983. During the 198283 television season, with the departure of Michael Landon, the series is broadcast with the new title Little House: A New Beginning.  A miniseries is called The Little House Years is aired in 1979.

The Young Riders premiers in the fall of 1989 and runs for 3 seasons.  The show follows a group of riders for the fabled Pony Express which operated 18601861.

1990s and 2000s

The 1990s sees the networks getting into filming Western movies on their own.  Like Louis L'Amour's Conagher starring Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross, Tony Hillerman's The Dark Wind, The Last Outlaw, The Jack Bull etc.

A few new comedies like The Cisco Kid, The Cherokee Kid, and the gritty TV series Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years.

Zorro is remake with Duncan Regehr for The Family Channel filmed in Madrid, Spain.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is a multi-Emmy Award winning western/dramatic television series in the United States, created by Beth Sullivan.  It runs on CBS for six seasons, from January 1, 1993 to May 16, 1998.

Walker, Texas Ranger is a long-running western/crime drama series, set in the modern era, in the United States, that stars and later is produced by Chuck Norris.  It runs on CBS for nine seasons, from April 21, 1993 to May 19, 2001.  For most of their time on air, Dr. Quinn and Walker air on the same Saturday night lineup.

In the 19931994 season, the Fox network airs a science fiction western called The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., which lasts for only 27 episodes.  In the fall of 1995, the UPN network airs its own science fiction western, Legend, which ends after 12 episodes.

Western TV shows from the 2000s include the syndicated Queen of Swords filmed in Almeria Spain, Louis L'Amour's Crossfire Trail starring Tom Selleck, Monte Walsh, and Hillerman's Coyote Waits, and A Thief of Time.  DVDs offer a second life to TV series like Peacemakers, and HBO's Deadwood.  In 2002, a show called Firefly (created by Joss Whedon) mixes the Western genre with science fiction. Justified is a series on FX that debuted in 2010, about a Western-style vigilante U.S. Marshal based in modern rural Kentucky.

With the growth of cable television and direct broadcast satellites, reruns of Westerns have become more common. Upon its launch in 1996, TV Land carry a block of Westerns on Sundays; the network still airs Bonanza and the color episodes of Gunsmoke as of 2011.  Encore Westerns, part of the Encore slate of premium channels, airs blocks of Western series in the morning and in the afternoon, while the channel airs Western films the rest of the day.  MeTV, a digital broadcast channel, includes Westerns in its regular schedule as well, as does the family oriented Inspiration Network.

  • A

    • Action In the Afternoon - is an western television series that aired live on CBS from February 2, 1953 to January 29, 1954.

    • Adventures of Rin Tin Tin - The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin is an American children's television program which originally aired in 166 episodes on ABC from October 1954 until August 1959.

  • C

    • Cheyenne - is a western television series of 108 black-and-white episodes broadcast on ABC from 1955 to 1963.

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