Best Western TV Shows

Best Western TV Shows

In the 1950s and early 60s there was an explosion of TV western series, many of which we can all remember now, although the heyday of the TV western was largely over by 1962.

This post is a gentle exploration of what came and went and what led to the demise of a formula that entertained us from the beginning of movies but which positively. Dominated the early TV days of the 50s.

Holster your twin colt 45s, saddle up your pinto pony and prepare to ride off into the past………..

The Genre

The Western tale predated celluloid by some considerable years, being one of the original forms of pulp fiction, with Western dime novels being the equivalent of the Victorian London-centric penny dreadfuls of the mid to late 1800s.

At some point it transferred to the airwaves with the Saturday afternoon matinee and eventually onto celluloid at the point where the end of the 19th century met the beginning of the twentieth.

The ingredients were common; set from around 1860 onwards, often involving a maverick gunslinger or cowboy as the central figure, sometimes a cavalry soldier, all armed with revolvers and rifles.

It was common for the backdrop to be arid desert, or desolate scenes backed by towering monolithic rock formations or snow capped mountain trails. The harshness of th environment formed part of the storyline and the described atmosphere.

This was carried on into the movies that began appearing at the turn of the century.

There were only a few common plot lines which included construction of railroad or telegraph lines, the disputes between ranchers and farmers, revenge or grudge plots, the subjugation of the Indian (native Americans) nations, outlaws and train robbers, gunslingers, lawmen and bounty hunters.

It is generally acknowledged as the most popular form of film and TV entertainment unrivalled between the 130’s and early 1960s.

Many modern SciFi creations owe their plot lines to the early Western genre including the original 1960s series of Star Trek which has often been described as a Western in Space.

Movies

Best Western TV ShowsThis post is about the TV shows that made Westerns a success in the 50s in particular but they owe their origin to the Hollywood movies of the 1830s and 40s such as John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach which made John Wayne a household name and others like the ox-Bow incident, 1943, My Darling Clementine, 1946, and Fort Apache 1948.

This was followed in the 50s with a plethora of western movies such as Broken Arrow, high, Noon, The Searchers, Rio Bravo and Shane.

But also coming of age in the 1950s was television and the subject of this post, the TW Western.

The Lone Ranger

Staring on radio in 1933 the masked Texas Ranger (alter Ego Ranger Joh Reid) with sidekick Tonto and faithful horse Trigger eventually hit TV screens in 1949 running until 1957 over 221 seasons.

The ranger was played by Clayton Moore, most remembered for the part, though he was actually replaced for two of those 5 seasons.

The Lone Ranger was really the last of a number of Western productions written mostly for a young audience.

From the mid 50s the action heats up and the TV Western Exeter’s its heyday…..

The Mid Fifties

This represents the golden age of the TV Western, the viewing audience could not get enough and in 1959 there were no less than 30 Western formula shows airing on prime time TV.

This was the decade that saw Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, maverick, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Bonanza, Lawman, The Rifleman, Laramie, Wanted Dead or Alive, Bronco.

In 1959 no shows were cancelled and 14 new ones appeared in one week alone, hence the amazing 30 show on prime time in that year.

It is estimated that some $125million would be spent on TV Western merchandise toys in 1959 alone.

Later Productions

Longer shows, fifty minutes to an hour, better production techniques and the advent of colour TV saw slightly more sophisticated shows take the air such as The Virginian, The Big Valley, and The High Chapparal all of which largely followed the Bonanza, dynastic ranch family formula but this was towards the end of the TV golden years.

There would be a brief dalliance in the mid 60s with quite different twists in the production type, but by 1962 those golden years of the TV Western were largely coming towards their end.

Its worth noting before leaving this section that some of these shows had incredibly long runs with Gunsmoke running for two decades, Bonanza, 14 years and the Virginian and wagon Train each running for 9 years. The series that gave Clint Eastwood his break into acting, Rawhide, ran for 8 years.

The 60s and 70s

A Western backdrop was used combined with other treatments in the 60s and 70s though never with the same phenomenal success as experience in the mid to late 50s and very early 60s.

Alias Smith and Jones, was a well produced comedy western, inspired by the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid story which ran from 1971 to 1973.

The Wild Wild West, had a SciFi twist to it which today would probably be described as steampunk and was about two US secret service agents equipped with all manner of James Bon type gadgetry and technology ate at the time of the US Civil war.

Kung Fu was quite different and introduced Eastern martial arts to TV for the first time against a Western backdrop.

Contemporary Treatments

Some notable attempts have been made in the last decade, or so, to revive the Western formula with more of a contemporary treatment resulting in a darker, in many ways more realistic and considerably less romantic view.
This has included productions like Justified, Hell on Wheels, Longmire, Deadwood, Tin Star and Banshee, all quite harsh and all with considerably more graphics violence than their mid 20th century antecedents.

Influence

Star TrekPerhaps the most famous Western that was never a Western was the 1960s series of the original Star Trek by producer writer and director Gen Roddenberry. Gene had written Westerns before working on Star Trek, most notably on the British Australian production Whiplash.

Roddenberry himself described Star Trek as a Western Opera, set in space. Many have commented on the same influence to be seen in films like the Star Wars saga and Bladerunner, little wonder given that all the creators of these productions grew up when the Western was King on television.

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Comments

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4 thoughts on “Best Western TV Shows”

  1. I was just looking for some new TV shows to watch during this social distancing and your post came out. To be honest, I have never watched any TV shows or movies made in the 60s or even the 50s, but it seems to be pretty interesting to watch a few contemporary movies for the first time. Nicely written!

    Reply
    • I grew up with most of these and really enjoyed them. It will be interesting to see them stand the test of time.  Enjoy them if you get round to it and thanks for the post🧐

      Reply
  2. Hi Hamish,

    This brings back A LOT of memories! Although most of these TV series were just before my time, they were still very popular, when I grew (born 1962).

    Yes, the Western movies were very entertaining, and I think they were the highlight of that ere. Comparing to the special effects, which became common place in later years… (not a lot of imagination…)

    I like to watch some old moves and TV series from time to time (I don’t own a TV), and these series mentioned in your article will definitely help to take care of that. Thank you! 

    Reply

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