NEW WESTERNS….ON THE LITTLE BIG SCREEN

A number of new Westerns are coming to a little big screen near you – your television. Over a half-dozen Western series either are in development or have recently been launched in this new era of High-Definition (HD) television.

As a specific form of the Western, TV Westerns became very popular with the advent of television in the late 1940s and 1950s – the “B” Western serial of movie houses effectively moved to the new format. Television Westerns reached their zenith in 1959 with 26 different series in prime-time slots. Western series on TV had waned by the early 1970s with some notable exceptions up to the first decade of this century. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993 to 1998) and Deadwood (2004 to 2006) – both Emmy-awarding series – helped to carry the Western television format forward.

One could argue that for mainstream audiences we are entering a period of renaissance for the Western – the re-emergence of the TV Western may be tied to this trend. The box office and critical success of the Coen Brothers’ film True Grit (2010) and the cultural impact of the video game Red Dead Redemption (2010) demonstrate the continual story-telling power of this North American-born genre.

The modern television Western also presents an opportunity for fresh insights into and enjoyment of the genre. From a technical standpoint, the benefits of HD television can share the details of landscape, geography and rural life with greater detail and clarity. Westerns are meant to be seen on a big screen – the wall-mounted television units of today allow viewers to do so on a scale unimaginable in the 1950s.

A greater sophistication of storyline can also be explored. Developments in historical scholarship now provide TV Westerns with material for meaningful representations of the minority groups that were a very real part of the West – from Chinese railway worker to African-American cowboy. Westerns that present the racial complexity of the 19th century allow modern viewers to connect with both the present multi-cultural experience and the underlying fact of a settler society built within traditional Indigenous territory.

What are some of the new Westerns series riding our way? Those in development include an ABC series titled Gunslinger to be launched in Fall 2012 and an NBC series based on the life of Etta Place, real-life female companion to The Sundance Kid, who in turn was an outlaw partner of Butch Cassidy. AMC has also launched Hell on Wheels this past November – it portrays the building of the US transcontinental railroad in a post-Civil War West with the lead character a former Confederate soldier seeking revenge for his wife’s death by Union soldiers. Here is a trailer for that series:

Clint Eastwood stepped from the TV Westerns series Rawhide onto the big screen in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) to become the iconic “Man With No Name”. Will an actor from one of these new series do something similar for a new generation?

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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