The rugged individualism of myth, the challenge of uncharted territory, the bad sanitation and awful racial stereotypes … the TV Western is back in the saddle.
More than half a dozen projects set in the Old West are in the pipeline or ready for roll-out across several networks in coming months.
The "horse opera," a genre that seemed to go the way of the buffalo in recent years, is galloping back, starting with "Hell on Wheels" from AMC next month. (Some say buffalo are resurgent, too.)
Theories abound, but consider two explanations for the trend, one grandiose, the other pragmatic: Either a war-weary nation facing uncertainty on every front seeks comfort in a treasured form with clearly heroic characters. Or Hollywood runs in cycles.
On the long, lonesome trail:
"Hell on Wheels," about the building of the transcontinental railroad and a Confederate soldier, post-Civil War, who seeks to avenge his wife's death at the hands of Union soldiers, premieres Nov. 6 on AMC.
From Sean Hayes and Todd Millner of Hazy Mills ("Grimm," "Hot in Cleveland") and writer Kerry Ehrin, NBC has a show set in the 1880s about the life of a doctor in a primitive town in the Colorado Rockies.
"Longmire," a Western-themed crime thriller set in Montana's "Big Sky" country, in the works for A&E. The series is based on mystery writer Craig Johnson's novels about Walt Longmire, widowed sheriff of the least-populated county of the least-populated state. Robert Taylor ("The Matrix"), Katee Sackhoff ("Battlestar Galactica") and Lou Diamond Phillips are signed to the project.
"Gateway," about the 1880s Colorado town of that name, has been ordered to pilot by TNT. Three brothers aim to hold the lawless town together after the death of their father, the sheriff, and must stand against the corrupt cattle baron. TNT executives say it's a classic good-guys and bad-guys cowboy drama with some modern twists.
"The Frontier," about a group heading West from Missouri in the 1840s in search of riches and reinvention, is currently in development for NBC from creator Shaun Cassidy.
"Hangtown" is in development at ABC from Ron Moore ("Battlestar Galactica"). Described as "Tombstone" meets "Castle," the hour combines the traditional TV Western with the modern crime procedural, and includes a female dime-novelist who sells pulp stories about the West to big-city publishers.
NBC also has an untitled drama from Liz Heldens ("Friday Night Lights") and Film 44, based on the life of Etta Place, a historic figure who hung out with the Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's a Western told from a woman's point of view.
ABC has a Western from David Zabel ("ER"): "Gunslinger" in development for next fall.
CBS secured James Mangold's "Ralph Lamb," described as a period drama about a cowboy-turned-Las Vegas sheriff in the '60s and '70s, from the producer-director of "Men in Trees."
The apparent revival of the Western has been a long time coming. Left for dead in recent years, the form hasn't attained commercial-hit status on a broadcast network since "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." Joss Whedon's space- Western "Firefly" tried to give cowpokes new life but garnered only a cult following. Cable has had better luck. HBO's "Deadwood," which was brilliant and Shakespearean in its vision, but wasn't considered a commercial success, and FX's "Justified," a modern Western based on Elmore
Leonard stories (and sharing Timothy Olyphant with "Deadwood" as its lead), another critical favorite but not exactly a blockbuster.
TV's current Western gold rush comes on the heels of the Coen brothers' Oscar-nominated "True Grit" remake and this summer's box-office hit "Cowboys & Aliens."
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