While they were popular, Westerns on television offered a social philosophy. Within their stylized traditions a viewer could find self-definition, values through which to comprehend his or her place in the world. Here, too, in its archetypes, symbols, and actions were metaphors justifying American policies in postwar politics. On a mass scale the TV Western provided a spiritual bonding between the heroic accomplishments of the old frontier and the individual and national obligations now confronting a new frontier.
Even at the time the video Western was perceived in monumental terms. It was the genre of the first two decades of television programming. As actor Barry Sullivan of The Tall Man declared confidently in 1961, "if Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing westerns."' Today, however, such presumption seems strikingly unrealistic. In fact, were Shakespeare writing Westerns in the last quarter of the twentieth century, he would be greatly out of joint with the times.
The failure of Western drama on network TV suggests an evolution within American popular thought. The death of the video Wild West means a discrediting of the "cowboy mentality": that chronic tendency in American culture to approach sociopolitical life in terms of a rural democracy filled with black-and-white simplicity—where problems are basically uncomplicated and easily resolvable; where direct action, often violent and destructive, quickly brings justice and restores social stability; where entertainment based upon distorted history places all ethnic and racial groups, all generations, and both sexes in uncritical communion with venerated pioneering Caucasian forefathers; and where horse-mounted, gun-toting heroes cum moral agents reassuringly return each week with a fresh child-or adult-oriented tale communicating notions of invincibility and rectitude.
The inability of the genre to survive represents, on the one hand, the failure of television writers and producers to discover the modifications—the new themes, language, and perspectives—necessary to rescue it from irrelevance. Into the second half of the 1980s, with aspects of its meaning co-opted by space adventures, urban police dramas, seductive primetime soap operas, and even situation comedies, there seemingly exists no reason to expect its resurrection. Born a literary genre in the nineteenth century, the Western as TV fare faces the possibility of extinction by the twenty-first century.
Even a trend toward political conservatism in the 1980s has failed to enliven the genre. Despite the impressive popularity of an ideologically conservative leader like Ronald Reagan, the Western on television has continued in its decline. The jingoism in successful theatrical features such as Red Dawn, Rocky IV, Invasion U.S.A., and the Rambo films has meant little to the revival of the Western. Even cowboy films like Rustler's Rhapsody, Silverado, and Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider have been few and, despite the drawing power of a leading man like Eastwood, less than successful at the box office.
As with the 1985-86 television year, there were no Western series scheduled for the 1986-87 season. TV Guide reported that NBC and CBS had pilot films in development and that CBS ordered six episodes of a series in which "several desperadoes of the 1890s are suddenly transported to the present." As for ABC, "having endured the failure of Wildside last year, [it] has no Westerns in development."
Perhaps the most ironic comment on the disintegration of the genre appeared in an advertisement promising for the fall of 1987 a syndicated new cartoon series, Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs, a hybrid of futuristic science fiction and the Western. "An out-of-this-world futuristic fantasy with a Western twist," proclaimed the full-page announcement in Variety in mid-1986. "Combine the legendary honor, virtue and individualism of the Wild West with vibrant extraterrestrial adventure," it continued. This evisceration of the Western would be accomplished through an animated cast that included Saber Rider, "handsome leader on his magnificent Steed pitted against the galaxy's slickest rustlers, a hero waging the battle for liberty and justice"—and Colt, "bold teenage cowboy pilot of the flashy Bronco‑buster, he's the galaxy's sharpest shooter"—and April, "heart throb of the whole galaxy and a cool and steely defender in the face of danger."'
The demise of the TV Western signifies a new level of national awareness. Despite nostalgic trends in contemporary political and religious leadership, life for the majority of Americans remains an urban ambiguity—a world of compromises with city life and modern technology in which workable answers are not readily forthcoming. While escapist fantasies set in an expansionist, preindustrial United States might reappear occasionally in American popular culture, urban routine has become a prepossessing fact of life. The image of a messenger of Truth dressed in spurs, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and carrying a pair of revolvers on his hips seems ridiculously unbelievable, if not popularly discredited.
Now, in the late 1980s the genre has been relegated to reruns of old series on local stations. Interestingly, the principal consumer of syndicated Westerns from the 1950s and 1960s is the lowly-rated cable service of the Christian Broadcasting Network. For this politically-conservative, religiously-fundamentalist operation, early evenings and weekends are deeply committed to vintage cowboy shows. Whether the motives of CBN are political, religious, or economic, through the likes of Branded, The Lone Ranger, Laredo, and Wagon Train—as well as the feature films of B Western stalwarts like Roy Rogers, Buck Jones, Wild Bill Elliott, and Johnny Mack Brown—the network offers a revealing glimpse of the nation's video and sociopolitical past.
As it flourished on television, the Western was for a less complicated and less informed era. It was the pastime of a people who trusted more and understood less. If the promise of TV was in part the enlightenment of society through the dissemination of information, the withering of the Western signals a partial achievement of that pledge.
A vestige of an earlier time, the Western has become incompatible with a civilization where the flow of events—especially when exposed through popular television—forced a reevaluation of the innocence and satisfaction with which most Americans had accepted the functioning of their society.
Unlike human mortality, cultural death need not be definitive. While the demise of the Western has been noticeable in the last decade, it may yet enjoy a video renaissance. However, it will never reappear in its older formulations. If ever the genre is to become again a viable form of TV mass entertainment, it must be rebuilt according to new social and intellectual specifications. Among the requirements for the neo-Western on television are the following:
- It must approach the frontier with believability in depicting the West as an imperfect historical experience in which many gained while many others lost; where Good was a relative term; and where the defeated did not necessarily deserve such a fate. Whether this is accomplished with humor or docudrama frankness, the Western can never again project the American historic past as a flawless process resulting in the triumph of Goodness.
- It must afford dignity to Asians, Native Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans, and other non-Caucasians, for their contributions in the authentic Old West were considerable, and their contemporary constituencies will tolerate no debasing of that record. Where racism existed in the West, it must be shown as a destructive and undesirable perversion that is at least an unfortunate aspect of the frontier past.
- Women must be given a respectable role in the frontier experience, not necessarily as gunslingers and bank robbers—although there were women who filled these niches in the real West—but as coequals with men in bringing American society to the hinterland; and in enduring the hurt as well as the triumph of that historic development.
- The main character in the Western can no longer be depicted as an invincible savior, a metaphorical embodiment of the nation's self-perception. In a time when the limitations of national prowess are popularly understood, there must be analogous weaknesses built into the Western central character that make him or her more recognizably human and vulnerable.
- Related to the point above, the Western "hero" can no longer be a one-dimensional champion. He or she must demonstrate personal characteristics still appreciated by the mass audience—such traits as self-sacrifice, honorability, intelligence, strength, pride, compassion, and hard work. But the new central character must accept the practical permanence of injustice. Such heroes must measure the completed job against the best of one's abilities, not some mythic perfection that humbles ordinary people.
- It must remember that while a single motion picture might achieve great popularity, television drama is a recurrent experience. Since TV characters must return each week to regain audience acceptance they must be more comfortable, more honest, and more familiar than movie characterizations.
- Above all, Western characters must be cognizant of their world and the vital interrelationships within it. There must be respect and dependency between people and their social and natural ecologies. This dignifying relationship must be incorporated into the work of all concerned with crafting the video Western—writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, actors, and others.
- There may be gimmicks and levity built into the neo-Western, but it still must be relevant to the audience, which is expected to return week after week to its stories; it must respect the critical and intellectual maturity of its audience.
- While violence must have its place in the neo-Western, it must be timely and nonexploitive. There must be the violence emanating from dramatic conflict, but bloody excess will not be accepted as timely or realistic.
- The neo-Western must be informational. By using its stories and imagery to communicate matters of social and personal concern, by offering new perspectives on old issues, by demonstrating interesting techniques and physical skills, and by similarly substantial representation, it must fascinate as well as impart understanding to its viewers.
- It must be crafted with a young audience in mind. Much of contemporary TV viewership is comprised of young people with no roots in the Western. The movie industry has been successful by appealing to teenage tastes; but television producers have a more difficult task: They must make the themes of the Western attractive without turning it into purely teenage entertainment. But first they must introduce the Western to a sizable number of younger viewers who historically have shown little or no interest in the genre.