On the death of TV westerns

Last updated 12:45 29/10/2012

Until The Simpsons surpassed it in 2009, the longest-running scripted show in American primetime was Gunsmoke. Based on a radio show that ran from 1952 to 1961, Gunsmoke was adapted for television by CBS in 1955 and ran for 20 years and 635 episodes. It still holds the record for most episodes by a US-made primetime, scripted show.

20121029The accolades don't stop there. Lead actor James Arness and supporting star Milburn Stone played their respective characters for the entirety of its 20-year run, tying with Kelsey Grammer for most time spent playing the same character (Grammer played Frasier Crane in both Cheers and Frasier). Gunsmoke is also the fifth longest running scripted live-action show internationally, behind Doctor Who, The Bill, Taggart and The Simpsons.

More important, in the context of today's blog post, it was the most watched show on American television - and arguably around the world - from 1957 to 1961. At one point, in 1959, there were 26 different Westerns airing in US prime time, counting for an astounding eight of the 10 most popular shows on television.

Yet, as I write this, the television western is almost a non-entity. As a genre, it barely exists in 2012, replaced in the Top 10 by procedurals, talent shows and reality trash. This was especially apparent as I watched last night's second season finale of Hell on Wheels - a show which, by all objective standards, is one of the most well-made on television. Yet low viewership, both here and around the world, means that it probably won't be back for a third season.

I would submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that the television western ... is dead.

Okay, that probably isn't a shocking revelation. Following a short burst of activity in the 1990s, when Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman was a hit and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr was a cult favourite, the western has really only made short appearances. Many have been revisionist, meaning that most of the traditional features - clearly defined good and bad characters, wide shots of sprawling desert, egregious use of horses - of a western are turned on their head; Hell on Wheels is one such show, while films like There Will Be Blood and True Grit are other examples.

Other shows have incorporated part of the western tradition, from Raylan Givens' giant Stetson hat in Justified to Jax Teller mounting his iron steed in Sons of Anarchy, to Captain Mal Reynolds leading his crew to the final frontier of discovery in crossover cult fave Firefly. Steven Spielberg believes that science-fiction has replaced westerns in Hollywood, saying "westerns were part of the identity of Hollywood for over 80 years ... I think science fiction is now the new identity of Hollywood."

Why did the traditional western go out of favour? Perhaps it has been replaced by sci-fi, a genre which explores many of the same themes; I certainly think there is an argument to be made there. But I think it might be even simpler. I think audience taste changes over time for one unpredictable and ultimately unknowable reason or another, and westerns just aren't something viewers are interested in right now.

Anyway, farewell Cullen, Elam, The Swede, and everybody else on Hell on Wheels. I do hope we'll meet again next year for a third season, but I'm not holding my breath. I'm just not sure there's room for your kind anymore.

Why do you think westerns are so unpopular in 2012? Would you watch westerns if there were more on television? And what did you think of Hell On Wheels this year?

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