We first came across a story that raised the possibility of a revival for the largely dormant western category last week, following all the reports of the near-record ratings that History Channel’s Kevin Costner miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” scored over three nights.
And we wondered: What does this miniseries about a 19th-century feud between hillbilly families on the border of West Virginia and Kentucky have to do with the likes of “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza”? Those are two shows that instantly come to mind when you come upon the phrase “TV western.”
Then, along came “Longmire.”
This modern-day western series premiered this past Sunday night on A&E, which happens to be a corporate sibling of History Channel. “Longmire,” starring Robert Taylor as a laconic county sheriff in Wyoming, was the highest-rated drama premiere in A&E history — 4.1 million. Moreover, the show is great (I happened to like it a lot). It’s now airing Sunday nights at 10/9c on A&E and you should check it out.
That viewership number — combined with the even greater three-night average for “Hatfields & McCoys” of just under 13.8 million — has generated some talk now that TV is preparing to re-embrace the western. It’s a category that was once the most robust in all of television way back in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In the decades since, westerns have returned every once in a while, but never in the numbers they enjoyed 50 years ago.
So are westerns poised for a revival? On that question, there's more, and less, here than meets the eye. Our analysis:
First, the story that raised this topic was posted on the showbiz Website known as Deadline.com here. The story suggested that, in the wake of the “Hatfields” triumph, two proposed western series that two networks recently passed on might be reconsidered.
According to the story, one is called “The Frontier,” and it was being developed for NBC. The other is called “Tin Star,” in the works for TNT. The story names a few others that were proposed a year earlier, and weren’t picked up. Do these projects, which weren’t picked up in their first go-rounds, represent a boomlet in western TV series? To be perfectly honest, I don’t think so. Let’s wait and see if they do get picked up — then we might have something here.
Second, a word on the current state of TV westerns: As the Deadline story points out, the only true western on TV now is “Hell on Wheels” on AMC. It’s a “true” western in the sense that it takes place in the west, in the 19th century. But it’s also true that several other series currently on the air and set in the modern day possess certain characteristics of westerns — “Justified” on FX, for example, which has a laconic U.S. marshal (“laconic” is a word you’ll see often when western movies and TV shows are discussed) who shoots first and asks questions later; and “Breaking Bad” on AMC, which takes place in the Southwest. However, “Breaking Bad” is a “western” without a hero, which, technically, would disqualify it from inclusion in the category.
And third, the legacy of “Deadwood” makes it awfully hard to produce a credible western series for TV in the first place. That late, lamented and revered HBO series about a hardscrabble, lawless mining town in the pre-statehood Dakotas completely altered how we perceive westerns. Thanks to “Deadwood,” now and in the future, it won’t be possible to produce cleaned-up westerns in the old “Gunsmoke” or “Bonanza” mold. (And it’s worth noting that the star of “Justified,” Timothy Olyphant, played a lawman on “Deadwood” too.)
Moreover, the foundation for this whole discussion about a western revival, “Hatfields & McCoys,” would seem to be somewhat shaky since this miniseries was hardly a western in the traditional sense. But then again, who’s to say? Its story about warring clans in the lawless hollows of Appalachia is not too far removed from movies and TV shows about similar face-offs (the many movie treatments of the famed shootout at the OK Corral serving as the best example — one of which, “Wyatt Earp,” featured Kevin Costner in the title role).
The conclusion: Before we herald the return of westerns to TV, let’s wait and see.