Monday, November 21, 2016
Too Much TV: A note on TV westerns
It looks like I won't have much time for this blog this week -- holiday deadlines do that to me -- but I wanted to let readers know that after a couple of years of somewhat intensive viewing I'm about ready to start doing series reviews of some classic western series from the 1950s and 1960s. TV westerns are a relatively late enthusiasm of mine, rather like pulp fiction and probably for some of the same reasons. I didn't care much for westerns when I was a kid, when what I had for reference was Bonanza, a show I've never warmed to, and the last seasons of Gunsmoke. It was unfair of me, I know now, to judge the genre by these shows, but only in recent years have I been able to see a larger sample of shows, thanks to cable TV. The premium channel Starz Encore Westerns, the Christian channel INSP, and channels of the sort used by local network affiliates to fill their digital slots -- MeTV, GetTV and Grit in particular -- have made a wider range of westerns available than we've had in thirty or forty years. In the past you'd see Gunsmoke and Bonanza because those were the longest-lasting shows. Now you can see shows that lasted only three or four years, or even one or two. Some deserved to last longer while some, of course, deserved their quick demise. I've seen enough now to know what I like and, I think, to know what's good. In general I like these shows for their tremendous stock company of character actors, some of whom moved on to movies (Charles Bronson, Warren Oates, George Kennedy, etc.) while others remained TV stalwarts (John Dehner, Claude Akins, John Anderson, etc.). I also like the efficiency of their storytelling, their ability to tell a complete story in an hour or half an hour. While there's much to be said for the modern immersive longform series, there's a sense of satisfaction from seeing a story complete in one sitting, without binging, that the modern shows, for all their virtues, can't provide. It was easier to tell complete stories quickly because the old shows didn't focus on an ongoing evolution of their heroes. That might sound bad at first hearing, but the idea usually was that we encountered characters already fully evolved, as opposed to today's concern with how everyone begins. The older shows weren't distracted by shipping, either. While I don't deny the entertainment value of shipping, the old arrangement that doomed every relationship a protagonist got into -- a love interest might die but more often simply moved on -- seems more like life somehow in its commitment to transience. I don't know what most people think when I raise the subject of classic TV westerns, but the best of them were clear kin to the "adult" or "psychological" westerns that flourished in the Fifties, and the necessity of cutting off all storylines but the protagonists' at the end of each episode often took these westerns in very dark directions. Some 1965-6 episodes of The Virginian, for instance -- that long-lived series' darkest season, that almost killed it -- might not seem out of place on HBO fifty years later, a lack of gore notwithstanding. It isn't darkness I'm looking for in the best western shows, however. I'm looking for a certain laconic authenticity and gravitas absent in both the more garrulous or simply goofy shows and the more stylized or gimmicky spaghetti westerns to which the classic TV westerns are often unfavorably compared. I'm also looking for heroes who kick ass and -- this is important -- talk the talk as well as walk the walk. I've found a few of those in my western watching, and I hope to introduce some of them to you sometime soon.