overthinking the idiot box

October 17, 2005

History can make for great TV. And if we don't dramatize the past, then we're just...

Doomed to rerun it
How The West Won Jenni
One Cowgirl's Top Five Television Westerns of All Time
by Jenni Powell

As a child, I'd make my Barbies get into gunfights. My "My Little Ponies" were stabled at the OK Corral. And instead of tea parties, my dolls would go for shots of whiskey at the local saloon.
I have reason to believe that my father was watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly shortly before I was conceived. I know, I know, perhaps that was more information then you'd like from a SMRT-TV columnist but honestly, that is how deeply ingrained the Western is in me. As a child, I'd make my Barbies get into gunfights. My "My Little Ponies" were stabled at the OK Corral. And instead of tea parties, my dolls would go for shots of whiskey at the local saloon. I recently did a day of community service sweeping the streets of West Hollywood, California and instead of contemplating the great things I was doing for my community, I spent the time recreating the movie Young Guns in my head, inserting myself as a central character in the film (Billy the Kid totally had a crush on me).

So when it came time to sit down and write my very first column for Doomed to Rerun It, it was very clear what era I would tackle first. Then came the arduous process of just what path to take my readers down... how to really share my love for the gun-slinging, whore-mongering, booze-guzzling, horse-riding, cattle-wrangling worlds I've discovered and fallen in love with on the small screen. The answer quickly became clear. Only a top five list would do!

5. Gunsmoke
Before Gunsmoke, western shows generally focused on fantasy characters such as Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, who'd made the move from movie and radio serials. Often these programs were fictionalized to the point of ridiculousness, catering mostly to children. Gunsmoke helped mark the beginnings of "adult westerns", centering around Marshal Matt Dillon (played by James Arness) in the frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas in 1873. Dillon was joined by Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), the town physician as well as the town drunk, spending hours throwing back beers at the Long Branch Saloon, owned and operated by the easy-on-the-eyes Kitty Russell.

Gunsmoke also made its mark on television history as the longest running dramatic series of all time. It premiered on CBS in September of 1955 and completed its run September 1975. James Arness and Milburn Stone remained on the show for all 20 seasons, with Amanda Blake following closely behind with 19 seasons.

Gunsmoke began a longtime trend for TV westerns. At one point, there were over 30 of them on the air at the same time. Alas, at the time of its cancellation in 1975, Gunsmoke was the only show of its kind still on the air.

But there were destined to be more...

4. Larry McMurtry
Okay, I'm cheating only slightly with this one. Though Larry McMurtry is a man, not a TV series, he is such an integral part of the history of television westerns, he more then deserves a spot on my top 5. The simple fact that he co-wrote and executive produced Brokeback Mountain ("The Hot Gay Cowboy Movie") is worth his spot. But that is a whole different article right there and we unfortunately just do not have the time.

Larry McMurtry is the writer and/or producer of over a dozen made for TV western miniseries, beginning with Lonesome Dove, which was based on his Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. He was also responsible for two Canadian series set in the old West - Lonesome Dove: The Series and Lonesome Dove: the Outlaw Years. The majority of McMurtry's television scripts are based off of his novels, of which he is one of very few authors still writing in the genre. Like most popular westerns, his stories interweave fact with fiction, integrating real-life western heroes with completely fabricated plot lines. One of my favorites of his novels (made into a miniseries several years ago, to my delight)which uses this device is Buffalo Girls, in which the stories of Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane are beautifully told within the setting of the famous Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

And now, a Larry McMurtry fun fact: after the success of the Lonesome Dove miniseries, several McMurtry imposters surfaced as, up until that point, McMurtry had been a relative recluse. He never included photographs on his book jackets and so no one actually knew what he looked like. In fact, to this day he has no picture posted on IMDB... Spooky? I think so.

3. Deadwood
The newest and one damn fine addition to a long and glorious tradition. And now with fouler language thanks to the no-need-for-bleeps HBO! Ironically, I actually hadn't seen one episode of this series before I came up with this article but I was actually aware of its existence before most. Upon my arrival in Los Angeles in the Spring of '03, I was on the glorious career path of the Hollywood Extra. One of my more exciting opportunities was playing a "lady of the night" on season one of Deadwood. Unfortunately, due to the impossibility of finding the Disney Ranch at 5 AM, my dreams of not being a whore, but playing one on TV were quickly vanquished.

Broken dreams aside, I have to say I'm very satisfied - this show had me at the first hanging. It's a beautifully low-down and dirty portrayal of the happenings in the town of Deadwood, South Dakota in the weeks following the Custer massacre. The town has no law yet a strange kind of respect of authority develops none-the-less. Of course, the main thrust of this authority lies in the hands of Al Swearingen, saloon owner and provider of a plethora of pleasures. Like McMurtry's work and many other westerns that came before it, the show incorporates real-life characters from our past with completely fictionalized ones. I was completely enthralled with the inclusion of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane as their "did they or didn't they?" relationship was always a girlhood interest of mine. I was also on the edge of my seat every time Hickok sat down at the table to play poker...just waiting for the infamous "Dead Man's Hand." Ian McShane not winning the Emmy was a travesty against mankind. Seriously.

And to wrap up: Timothy Olyphant. Yum.

2. Firefly
Yes, space westerns totally count. Taking Serenity out of the picture and regardless of what other members of the SMRT-TV staff may have to say, Firefly most definitely takes it's place among the best of the western best. Gunfights, cattle drives, saloon fights--this show has all the elements that make a western, well, a frakin' Western! Plus, there is no sound in the depths of space!

1. The Young Riders
The Young Riders ran for four seasons from 1989 until 1992. Basically, it shuttled me into adolescence and let me just say, a television series about the Pony Express which features Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, AND Buffalo Bill (played by the Baldwin known as Stephen) is just what a lady needs to teach her The Way of Things.

A little history lesson: The Pony Express was in service from April 1860 to November 1861 and its primary mission was to deliver mail and news between St. Joseph, Missouri, and San Francisco, California. An ad in a California newspaper of the time read: "Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." Most riders were around 20 with the youngest recorded being 11 and the oldest in their mid-40s. Now, anyone who knows their western history knows that Bill Hickok, Jesse James and Buffalo Bill being at the same place at the same time as well as WORKING TOGETHER is complete lunacy. But damn did it make for some tasty television. Throw in the mix the fact that one of the riders is actually a WOMAN (a secret which got out by season 3...by season 4 she was married to one of her fellow riders. Talk about office romance!) and another BLACK (keep in mind this is set just before the Civil War) and you've got yourself intermingling plotlines to last you until the cows come home. And some morality tales to boot!

If you ever feel the urge to catch this series, all you need to do is go to Italy. My younger sister was in Rome this past summer and it played seven nights a week on Italian television. And you thought the Spaghetti Western was dead.

So there you have it folks, this little lady's top five television westerns of all time, cultivated after 26 years of vigorous research, experience, and hours and hours and hours of eye-straining. Perhaps you agree with my picks, perhaps you are outraged and the omission of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. Look, I love me some Bruce Campbell too but really, there wasn't much more to the show then that. But if it makes you feel any better, I think my own parents would argue the point.

Now it's time for me to ride off into the sunset... or at least on over to the SMRT-TV forums.

Regulators, mount up.

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