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."
More to the point, it comes at time when dispirited Americans may want to "step away from the muddle and follow a good guy as he brings order," suggests Patty Limerick, head of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The TV or film Western promises to "take all the disorder and confusion" out of life for a brief period, Limerick said. "All the timid townspeople at least know who's going to represent their interests and bring the world back into better shape."
Revisiting a time when men were men and women were women, according to the mythology, might be appealing in an age that has produced several TV shows about the modern age's perceived threats to masculinity, like Tim Allen's "Last Man Standing."For those more comfortable with 19th-century mores, the Western provides solace.
"The Lone Ranger, with promise of the thrilling days of yesteryear, that's a powerful invitation," Limerick said.
Students of film know the Western is "our most indigenous film form," says John Simons, English professor at Colorado College and co-author of "Peckinpah's Tragic Westerns."
The Western is "a genre that distinctively gives itself to that Shakespearean dimension, pitting individuals against the elements, large historical movements and always turning on the ambiguous meaning of action in the world," Simons says. "Six-gun Macbeth, as it were."
Modern Westerns have broadened the lens to include minorities in the Old West. David Milch's three seasons of "Deadwood," in particular, used a diverse cast to cover a multitude of social issues.
"The ways these films now examine ethnicities, women in the West, the mixed blessings of the railroad …" Simons said. "It's American history in all of its complexity, its contradictions."
"Broken Trail" was the highest rated program in AMC's history; AMC executives like to think they'll cash in on the Western theme again. Judging by the first hour, "Wheels" is no "Deadwood," but the producers hope it brings a unique point of view.Comment on this story
Unlike traditional Westerns, whose white-hat versus black- hat plotlines pitted good against evil, modern Westerns may allow for gray areas. Where old Westerns tended to be simplistic, new Westerns may trade on the established themes of redemption and second chances but aim for more nuanced and complex personalities.
It's too soon to say how the bulk of these planned Westerns will differ from the classic "Virginian" and "Gunsmoke" varieties. But it's not too early to anticipate some modern takes on yesteryear.