Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Western TV

I don't know how many of you remember that back in the Eighties the Family Channel used to show old Western TV shows all Saturday. Now the Hallmark Channel does it. I have to admit that I have a fondness for those old TV shows. I wasn't even alive yet when the first wave of Westerns hit television in the Fifties, although the second wave was well under way not long after I was born. In fact, I rather suspect that the first TV show I ever watched was probably Bonanza. I remember my parents used to watch it every Sunday night. I also remember Gunsmoke, although my parents weren't nearly as loyal in viewing Gunsmoke as they were Bonanza.

In reruns I would discover other Westerns. Rawhide followed the adventures of a cattle drive. The Rifleman followed the adventures of a homesteader and his son.

My favourite two Western TV shows were also the most offbeat. Have Gun--Will Travel centred on Paladin, a man whose occupation was probably best described as "troubleshooter." In one episode Paladin might be hired to capture a convicted murderer. Another episode Paladin might be hired to help a suitor win the woman he loves. In yet another episode, Paladin might be hired to umpire a baseball game (yes, that was an actual episode!). Have Gun-Will Travel differed from other Westerns in another way as well. This was a thinking man's Western. Despite his slogan ("Have gun--will travel), Paladin more often used his wits than his gun. Indeed, this was a character fond of quoting Shakespeare! And many of the episodes dealt with issues not often seen on any TV series at the time.

My other favourite Western is The Wild Wild West. It was at the same time a Western, a spy show, and a sci-fi series in the tradition of Jules Verne (I guess one could say it was an ancestor of Steampunk). It featured the adventures of two agents for the United States Secret Service, James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), assigned to the American West. There they faced villains who often had technology that was very advanced for the 19th century. Their archenemy was Dr. Miguelito Loveless, a villain intent on world conquest. Among his plots were a powder which causes madness, a powder which can shrink people, and a chemical that can kill all life (plants, animals, people).

While I admit that I have a fondness for the old Western TV series, they did have their flaws. Despite the fact that many cowboys were African American, very few African Americans appear in any of the series. Hispanics also rarely appear, except for the stereotypical Mexican bandits. While Native Americans often appeared on the TV Westerns, they were usually portrayed as little more than ethnic stereotypes. Asians rarely appeared on TV Westerns except in the stereotypical servant role. Even as sophisticated as Have Gun--Will Travel was for its time, Paladin's servant "Hey Boy" was little more than a stereotyped Chinese man.

Beyond the largely European American world that the TV Westerns portrayed, there were many cases where one Western TV series was indistinguishable from others. In fact, there was very little variation in the professions of the heroes of TV Westerns. In the Westerns aired on the networks and in syndication from 1955 to 1976, the vast majority of protagonists were either gunfighters, lawmen, or ranchers. As hard as it is to believe, that whole time there was only one TV Western with a doctor as the main character (Frontier Doctor with the great Rex Allen). Lawyers fared a little better--there were three Western TV shows that featured lawyers as their protagonists. To some degree, then, the heroes of the TV Westerns were interchangeable. Despite the huge number of Westerns aired in that time, there was very little variety.

Anyhow, despite their flaws, I am still fond of those old shows. They are something of "comfort shows" for me. They are shows that remind me of a simpler time when I was a child and did not have the responsibilities or stress that comes with being a "grown up."

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