The Adult Western: The Demise
In the halcyon years of the adult Western, from the late 1950s until the mid-1960s, the genre projected a world of danger. Frontier robbers and killers were a threatening breed. Their brutalizing qualities affected gentle townspeople who seemed safe neither on the streets nor in their homes.
The Western also told of disruptive social forces more fundamental than evil individuals. Here base human passions such as ignorance, intolerance, greed, hate, jealousy, and revenge often wreaked disastrous effects upon pioneer settlements. The ignoring of civilized standards or the abdication of social responsibilities also destabilized life on the frontier. In addition, there were natural calamities—fire, storm, flood, drought, and the like—that on occasion undermined the harmony of Western existence. It was within these parameters that TV Western characters operated.
There was, however, a cultural imperative influencing the history of the video Western. For a series—not to mention a genre—to attain popularity with a national audience, it must be accepted by a sufficiently large number of viewers. Given the nature of popular entertainment in the United States where it is commercial, competitive, ephemeral, and necessarily "purchased" by an audience, for any form to endure the mass audience must find and continue to find meaning in its realizations. This is accomplished when a cultural product is able to relate significantly to the values, fantasies, aspirations, anxieties, self-conceptualizations and other prevailing attitudes shared by the audience/customers.
All this the TV Western has ceased to do. Today cowboy programs are nonexistent and the genre is dead. Western drama is an anachronism. Where children once thrilled to the adventures of Hopalong Cassidy and the Range Rider, a new generation has neither heard their names nor seen their video exploits. Where adult men and women once spent much of their evenings observing the moral confrontations of Paladin and Rowdy Yates and Hoss Cartwright, there now are no Westerns in primetime network TV—and there has not been a truly successful new Western series in two decades.
If the genre today is not dead, it is at least in a deep, paralytic coma; and it will require a miraculous recovery bordering on resurrection if it ever is to regain importance as a popular diversion. This is because the entertainment form has become culturally unimportant. Its inner qualities are no longer acceptable to the mass audience. Its mystique and symbolism are questioned. Its messages are incongruent with contemporary social realities. Its stories are unwelcome. Its politics are controversial.
Social thought in the United States has changed during the decades that television has been an affordable popular medium, but the Western has failed to make the transition. Stunted by its dated frame of reference and weakened by excesses that are generic, the Western on television has become extinct—worse yet, it has become irrelevant.
Some have maintained that the Western still lives in urban police dramas like Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues, and in the technological heroics in such series as Airwolf and Knight Rider. It is suggested that because other genres have captured some of its style and social purpose, the Western continues to influence American entertainment. Larry Michie writing in Variety in 1976, for example, explained that "this is the era of the new western, the cop show."
As alluring as it sounds, this argument is myopic. Michael Knight's talking automobile in Knight Rider is not the equivalent of Paladin's black stallion. Stringfellow Hawke in his supercharged helicopter in Airwolf is no Sky King. The seedy criminality resolved weekly by Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs on Miami Vice does not equate to the outlawry handled by Wyatt Earp or The Lone Ranger. Dragnet, The Lineup, The Naked City, Peter Gunn, and other urban detective series flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s without being confused with Westerns. Even while the Western was in its prime, TV offered programs showing heroes other than cowboys entering the lives of troubled people, solving problems, then moving on to the next case—it was a medical calling on Ben Casey, on Perry Mason it was done for a lawyer’s fee, and on Route 66 the service was performed free of charge.
The Western must be understood within a distinct set of criteria. This does not mean that these qualifiers exist exclusively for this genre. Some themes of the Western have been co-opted by other cultural forms. Aspects of its social relevance can be found in the detective story, the police procedural, modern adventure series, science fiction, and even situation comedy. But the totality of these criteria exists only in the Western and no amount of rhetoric can make Capt. Frank Furillo of Hill Street Blues into Marshal Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke.
The demise of the Western was not a quick development. Even during its glory years it exhibited signs of serious disorder. This was most obvious in the debilitating critique of the genre as inherently violent programming deleterious to public health. This would lead to the first great compromise with its virility, the emergence of the domesticated Western.