“In a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles… (Resurrect old styles periodically because there is nothing else new– we can only remix what’s been done)” (Jameson). This concept does not just sit under a purely denim based umbrella; this concept will also encompass the media world and specifically Television and the western itself. Television is a living organism and when times change so does the industry and so does the Western. Today’s Postmodern Western uses an array of devices to stay relevant in today’s postmodern era. In the beginning of TV, the Western was more of a caricature of a western lifestyle. In our present times, it embodies a more realistic portrayal with an onslaught of sexuality and the rehash of our culture. To keep up with the bustling nature of our accelerated culture, the Western has had to go under the knife to become a multitude of different genres. Between taking the Western into space, placing into a present day or putting it back right where it began almost 165 years ago, the Western has come a long way. Today the TV Western has been rethought, rehashed, and recycled and it is still as popular as it was more then 50 years ago. The Western is not dead, it just has been revised to suit our postmodern lifestyles.
Since 1940 and the birth of the television, the genre has been a staple of organization and the triangle trade of TV. Genres tend to be based on a multitude of point mainly style, themes, structure, and location (Chandler). In all necessary sense the TV Genre is constructed and used so the audience can determine what to watch, but more importantly so that the TV studios can make a profit. The genre allows for the analysts to determine what demographic of person watches what show and from that data they place the shows in their time slots. From the time slot choices the studio then approaches the advertising industry to sell the airtime to each demographic. This cycle is why genres are so important to the TV industry and why it is used in such a dissecting manor. Genres in some circles of TV are considered rules, these rules are repeatedly broken, but they explore what we call sub-genres and the marriage of many of the umbrella genres. Specifically in Westerns which, over the course of the last 70 years, have evolved with the times. Instead of the classic Western that may have existed in the beginning of TV, we now have hybrid genres, a mixture of the original setting or plot that you may remember from Westerns of the past that have now been replaced with another setting or another plot from a completely different genre known as the cross genre. Today we put each one of these cross genres under a large western umbrella that now encompasses the Science Fiction Western (that includes ultramodern elements into a Western setting), Contemporary Westerns (original Western themes placed in contemporary times) and the Revisionist Western (based on the original time frame with far more realism sex and a far more gritty nature). These three sub genres have been created due to the hybrid nature of today’s postmodern TV culture.
During the early years, the television industry sprouted a multitude of programming that would soon determine the way in which America received its daily entertainment. In the early 40s to mid 60s, it became abundantly clear that the TV Western was the sought after genre that people from all ages turned to during their free time in front of the wonder box (Jackson 13). Soon Westerns became a prominent staple to the everyday line up of the three networks and as the 50s progressed the Western would eclipse all other genres on ABC, NBC, and CBS alike. Shows like Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy would rule the airwaves for almost an entire decade. Yes, the Western was here to stay. Or so they thought. The networks left hours of prime-time open just to fill it with a Stetson and a single action Colt. These show were simple and easy to create. And by 1965 the networks had fired out over 150 westerns in a span of 25 years (Jackson 22). The postmodern world was beginning to grow tired of the constant barrage of the 1870s and its lack of relevance to the culture hurdles of the times.
By the 1960s, America had begun to change on a rapid basis, so fast in fact that culture flipped upside down. Between the years of 1960 and 1969, the western would take a long look in the mirror. Variety hours and sitcoms took over the airwaves and opened a new door. The Western had given America a break from the day-to-day violence of WWII, but WWII was over and so were the go-lucky 50s (Jackson 14). The baby-boomers were set on changing the world…and they did. The West had been won and it was time for the new war to be fought, a war of social injustice, political oppression, and cultural birth. No one was prepared for the culture revolution that would shake the core of this nation. Between its bookends the 1960s would see the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and man would walk on the moon. The Beatles, Woodstock, and the Summer of Love would cement the rise and fall of Rock and Roll and the hippie nation (McWilliams xiii). All of this would not be in vain. The Baby Boomers had changed the world, it was just a different outcome than what they had predicted. They had created a counter culture that would catapult youth, rock and roll, free thought and expression into the masses, and society would never be the same. After all the blood, sweat, and tears, the counter culture and its ideas of the world would finally fall on the fuzzy little box that sat at the center of your living room, the TV. This counter culture that had grown up watching the classic Westerns The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers would in the end kill the very shows they grew up adoring (Reid).
The Western was now a relic of the 1950s and both the networks and the viewers were beginning to acknowledge its demise. As Westerns steadily declined a new genre began to take precedent over the wounded Western known as the Spy genre. After the film Dr. No was released in 1962, James Bond and the spy genre became the new kid on TV’s prime-time block. The Networks began to take notice and began looking to other outlets to fill their slipping ratings (Reid). In a last dash to save the TV Western CBS began looking for a more current show that was relevant to the growing Baby Boomer audience. During this search a successful triple threat (writer, producer, actor) named Michael Garrison took notice. Garrisons business partner at the time Gregory Ratoff had purchased Ian Fleming’s first bond novel Casino Royale and when Ratoff died, Garrison decided it was time to follow his interest with the spy genre and began work devolving a similar project this time is would be Bond on Horseback. Garrison pitched the project to his friend Hunt Stromberg Jr. (head of CBS programming development) and Stromberg gave the green light. With Garrison taking cues from the spy genre (Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and from the science fiction genre (The Twilight Zone) he created a show that encompassed all of the popular action of the time, and on September 17, 1965 CBS released the first postmodern, cross-genre, western known simply as The Wild Wild West. The main characters, Jim T. West and Artemus Gordon, were secret service agents hired by the US Government to infiltrate highly sensitive situations they lived like James Bond fought like James bond and took on villains from The Twilight Zone (Reid). Michael Garrison’s hybrid creation was an instant success and although well written, and enjoyable, the shows copious amount of violence got it booted from the network on its fourth and final season. But Garrison had done something, he had reconstruct the way we watch and enjoy westerns, by simply splicing in aspects of TV that the current culture already enjoyed. He had created the three sub-genres of the Postmodern Western The Wild Wild West fell under all three of the hybrid sub-genres Science Fiction Western, Contemporary Westerns, and Revisionist Western. This would prove extremely important to the Western genre in decades to come, but not even Garrisons daring idea could save the genre in the late 60s and by the end of the decade all but Bonanza and Gunsmoke had been cut from the networks (Jackson 14).
After the death of the TV Western in the mid 1960s, a large void was left in television for almost four decades. Forty years of cop dramas, sit-coms, medical dramas, and soap operas. It was time for the world to see a gunslinger quick draw again. As the ideas and interest ran out for many of the TV series of the early 80s, TV executives again began the search for the next show that would cover their prime-time slots. In this post modern environment the easiest way to find a new medium was to go back and reinvent the past (Johnson). Many executives began thinking of a new way to introduce the western back into the mainstream culture, but without a relevant grasp time and money would be lost on a doomed pilot. Warner Bros. decided to take a gamble and released a show called The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr. in late 1993. The show was about a lawyer and gunslinger, Briscoe County Jr., son of the late marshal Briscoe County, who is hired by three powerful tycoons to track down his father’s killers and bring them to justice. The show embodied many aspects of Garrison’s original hybrid Western theory. The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr. mainly dealt with the sci-fi side of Garrison’s post western genre (Jackson 218). The show aired on Sunday mornings on TNT paired along side the original Wild Wild West series that had been syndicated to play before Briscoe County at 9am every Sunday. Although the idea was well executed the time slot for the show was not prime-time and The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr. only lasted for one season. Nearly ten years later in the early part of 2001 TV executives learned that a mixture of genres could revive and give birth to a new genre of Western now known as the cross genre. The cross genre allowed for time, space, location, and modernization to happen in the Western genre and it allowed its audience interest in a more contemporary time (Johnson).
The first step to develop a new Western was to take them out of the 1860s and move them to a galaxy far, far away. Feeling that if film could do it with Star Wars why couldn’t TV do the same, in 2002 Joss Whedon released FireFly, a space-western based in a future 500 years from now. This cross-over of sci-fi and the Wild West was not new to many of the viewers and the show was regarded as a Western almost entirely. The fact that the crew of Firefly happened to be in space seemed irrelevant to many of the viewers and critics alike. Part of the fun of Firefly is the way it explicitly explores the Western roots that many sci-fi films and television series share: through the use of Western character types (think Stagecoach in space), the use of multiple Western visual and aural motifs (space as wide open plains, individual planets with western topographies, guns, clothing, colloquial speech), and the use of various Western plot devices, train robberies, cattle rustling, etc. (Johnson).
Westerns have just turned to Sci-fi to have their voices heard just as George Lucas did for film Whedon is doing for TV. Critics and viewers alike view Firefly as a Sci-Fi Western or a cross-genre a true hybrid not just a Western with Sci-fi elements, but a Western character type in space. Unlike the original TV Western that were released more then 60 years ago TV has now had time grow up and as the medium has matured a more aggressive approach to genre and the industry is allowed to thrive. Television, like its social audience, has grown and with that growth comes a birth of sexuality, language, and cinematic abilities not capable on the television of the past. TV had not just expanded as a genre, but rebirth was also possible in 2004 David Milch released Deadwood on HBO. Deadwood gives birth to the highly sexual, gritty, and real world out look on the Old West. It falls between a Contemporary Western and a Revisionist Western (Larvy). Deadwood gives a fresh and realistic outlook of how the West really functioned in the mid 1800s. Its gritty nature was essential in making the show not only authentic, but plausible to the postmodern audience that would be watching the show. Releasing Deadwood on HBO would insure that the FCC would not be able to interject its views on the production and its ideas to treat Deadwood as a film making the shows use of sex, violence and language a core to its very nature (Larvy). Even though Deadwood does not cross over multiple genres it is the true definition of a cross over theory known as the Post-Western. Deadwood ‘s vulgar language and gratuities violence and sex make it barely TV and could be classified as a modern mini-series. Although Deadwood does not launch into space or go to distant planets, its real nature does not detract from its groundbreaking ability to be the first accurate TV Western possible of all time.
Along with the Sci-fi Western, Westerns of the past 20 years (such as Briscoe County Jr. and FireFly) we also have Westerns the take place in modern day and like with the new bread of TV the new bread of the Antihero tags on for the ride. The modern Western must be a clear mix of the Wild West but still balanced with the postmodern world we live in. In the last few years we have seen a revamp in Film and in TV. The Western is no longer a death trap (i.e. Adventures of Briscoe County Jr. and FireFly) and now multiple networks are joining the race to create the newest western, they will fall by the wayside simple because FX (the Fox associated network) has between everyone else to the punch starting with The Sons of Anarchy. Sons is the brain child of Kurt Sutter, that is in the midst of shooting its third season, and ending with Justified (FX’s newest Western) a true Post-Western produced and written by Elmore Leonard. Both series are very similar to the original way westerns were filmed and executed they just happen to have been made in the early part of the new millennium. Although the shows come from not only the same network but also a similar genre it is easy to see the direct similarities in differences in the approaches and productions. Although both tend to have an Antihero feel each have their own identity. Justified is a series that revolves around a lone wolf US Marshall known as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens – he has a self assured swagger and an overdeveloped trigger finger and lays down the law with a quick pull of the trigger.
Justified is certainly a Post-Western, consciously drawing on and reinventing traditional genre conventions. The series alludes to those conventional Westerns in several ways: by casting Timothy Olyphant in the lead role (and thereby alluding to his earlier role in Deadwood, connecting, via the actor, the characters of Seth Bullock and Deputy US Marshall Raylan Givens); via the character’s signature clothing (Stetson, cowboy boots, gun holstered at his hip); and a number of other smaller ways as well… Including a large poster for the film Tombstone, a visual reminder of the series’ awareness of its western roots…And Raylan is the fastest gun in the west. His fast draw speed places him in a long line of western heroes (Johnson). The Sons of Anarchy and Justified portray a spirit and livelihood developed decades prior by the TV industry back in the 50s and sits cookie-cutter against the Anti-Hero Western within the Western genre. From Wanted Dead or Alive to The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke, The Sons of Anarchy and Justified represent a postmodern take on a so-called “dead genre”.
The balance between the Western genre and the multitude of cross genres that now fall under its vast umbrella has blurred severely over the last seventy years, and it’s hard to tell where the Western ended and where the sub-genres, cross-genres and hybrid-genres begin. In this postmodern culture that we live in few things can be as clear as the Western, it seems impractical that something as American and simple as a Western can be more complicated then an outlaw in a ten gallon Stetson holding a six shooter, but that’s the true essence these past 70 years have shown tremendous growth not only in the hybrid nature of television culture but true evolution in the genres themselves. In the beginning genre was simple comedy or tragedy now we have a multitude of areas to explore now drama is not just drama it now can be dramedy.
Today’s culture turns the TV Western in to an open book. Simply imply the nature of the outlaw, the lone wolf, or the lawman and the rest will follow. You do not need a horse to be a cowboy. A Harley Davidson will do just fine. You don’t need an open range to ride on when infinite star systems at light speed will do. And you don’t need a six-shooter. A full auto Russian AK47 will do the trick. Because of these leniencies from our accelerated culture and our acceptance for cross-genres TV studios and networks now have the ability to create a show that caters to all walks of life. The Western may not be dead, but it is certainly not a Western anymore it’s a Post-Western.
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