Westerns are back in the TV saddle
A handmade sign at the edge of the filthy frontier town in AMC’s post-Civil War drama, “Hell on Wheels,” gives a grim statistic: “Hell on Wheels: Population — One less every day.”
Just the opposite seems to be true of prime-time television and its reinvigorated love of the western, where projects are sprouting like cactus in the desert. In the event that all or even some of these gestating network and cable shows get to air, viewers may see the biggest glut of westerns on TV since the genre’s heyday in the ‘60s.
After hits like the Coen brothers’ movie version of “True Grit” and western-tinged television series such as FX’s “Justified,” the timing may be right for a revival of a genre that glorifies open spaces, opportunity and rough individualism, industry watchers say. In a back-to-basics move that may reflect the national appetite — or anticipate it — TV executives have been actively searching for period pieces that recall some of the country’s early, hopeful days.
That’s not to be confused with a sanitized picture of the Old West that ignores its brutality and lawlessness. According to early descriptions of the percolating shows, there will certainly be a body count. And the new westerns, as opposed to the traditional good-guy-always-triumphs maxim, may owe more to “Deadwood” and its gang of shady, morally challenged characters than to white hat-wearing Roy Rogers.
TV executives, many of whom have been western fans since they were kids watching “Gunsmoke” and “The Big Valley” in syndication, say the genre is appealing for its simplicity and singularity. Against the backdrop of an increasingly complicated world, westerns could be the comfort-food entertainment that viewers are craving.
“These stories are distinctly American, and they’re timeless,” said Joel Stillerman, AMC’s senior vice president of original programming. “I think audiences are looking for something clear-cut and unambiguous.”
The state of national and world affairs — think Occupy Wall Street protests, international debt crises — has made many people feel powerless, whereas westerns reward a take-charge attitude. “In westerns, you have an individual with a code of honor, and he relies on himself and his wits,” said Joe Gayton, executive producer of “Hell on Wheels.” “It’s the perfect antidote to that growing sense of frustration that’s out there in the country right now.”
The TV projects in the works are as varied as they are plentiful. A remake of the classic Sam Peckinpah hit, “The Rifleman,” is in development at CBS, as is a drama based on a cowboy-turned-sheriff in Las Vegas in the ‘50s.
NBC has at least two westerns in its mix, including one told from a female perspective, and ABC has drawn a bead on a couple of menacingly named series: “Hangtown,” described as a procedural set in the Old West, and “Gunslinger.” Fox, meanwhile, is considering a drama based on Wyatt Earp that would include the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
AMC is in front of the trend with “Hell on Wheels,” centered on the movable city of workers who built the transcontinental railroad, but cable competition is ready to come out guns blazing. TNT has ordered a pilot of “Gateway,” with Keith Carradine as a small-town Colorado homesteader, and A&E may add “Longmire,” about a widowed sheriff in Wyoming, to its originals slate.
HBO, which broke ground with the violent and profane “Deadwood” several years ago, may return to the genre with a series about famous gambler, gunfighter and Wyatt Earp protégé Doc Holliday.
It’s been decades since westerns reigned on the small screen, when dramas like “Bonanza,” “Maverick,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Wagon Train” and “Rawhide” were the best-watched shows on prime time in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The genre largely disappeared by the ‘70s, when TV went through what’s sometimes called a “rural purge” and aimed for more urban, sophisticated programming. Even a massive hit like the CBS miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” which drew 26 million viewers, was an island in the late-'80s.
Though most of the projects currently in development don’t yet have a full cast, their behind-the-scenes firepower is formidable. Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman is plotting HBO’s Doc Holliday series with his frequent collaborator, Ron Howard. The show, the first under Goldsman’s new development deal with the premium cable channel, would be based on the novel “Doc” by Mary Doria Russell. Howard is expected to direct the pilot, his first for TV.
James Mangold, who remade the classic feature “3:10 to Yuma,” and writer Nicholas Pileggi (“Goodfellas,” “Casino”) are teaming up for CBS’ Vegas-based “Ralph Lamb.” Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (“Cowboys & Aliens,” “Star Trek,” “Hawaii 5-0") are driving Fox’s Wyatt Earp concept. Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) is one of the producers working on the yet-unnamed female-centric NBC project, and Ron Moore (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Caprica”) is creating “Hangtown” for ABC.
Moore said he’d been chomping at the bit to do a western and was thrilled to learn from his agent that TV executives were looking specifically for those kinds of pitches."It’s survived as a form for so long because it’s so malleable,” Moore said. “It can examine morality, society, culture, racism, sexism, politics, you name it. It’s a caldron you can throw a lot of different elements into.”
“Hangtown,” set in the 1870s, will center on three characters — a Clint Eastwood-style lawman, a forensics doctor and a dime-store novelist (who happens to be a woman). The three will take on the crime of the week in what Moore describes as a “broad adventure with a high fun quotient.” While it won’t veer into camp or comedy — it’s no “Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” — it’s definitely not Cormac McCarthy or “Unforgiven,” he said.
TV writers and executives said they think there’s room for more than one western on the dial, especially if the shows attack the genre from different angles. TNT, for instance, will go the populist route with “Gateway,” which will deal with the harsh environment of that period in history without being too weighty.
“We’re looking to do entertainment that’s authentic, smart and complex — not a cartoon version of the West, but not dark and angry,” said Michael Wright, executive vice president, head of programming at TNT, TBS and TCM. “We’ll be unafraid to extol the virtues of heroism and people who do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing.”
The wide-open vistas of places like New Mexico, where “Gateway” is filming, will enhance the show’s aura of freedom, fresh starts and reinvention, he said.
If there’s a common thread in the myriad projects, it may be that the protagonists, whether they’re law-abiding sheriffs or former slave-owning Confederate soldiers, have shades-of-gray personalities. They’ll rarely be as squeaky clean as traditional cowboy heroes like Marshal Matt Dillon, and the villains may turn out to be just as likable and charismatic.
AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” has at its core Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount, who’s on a mission to avenge his wife’s brutal murder. Early in the 10-episode series, viewers find out in graphic detail that he’s already started picking off those responsible. He also saved the life of an injured woman and stood up for a freed slave.
“He’s a mean, surly guy who’s lost everything,” said Tony Gayton, executive producer of the series with his brother Joe. “He’s not a classic western hero, but he’s still a hero.”
Bohannon fits right in at AMC, which has built its scripted programming around magnetic, morally ambiguous characters like “Mad Men’s” Don Draper and “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White.
AMC was aggressive in developing the show because its airings of western films have always attracted a sizable audience, and its first scripted miniseries, “Broken Trail,” with Robert Duvall and Thomas Hayden Church, broke records and beat every broadcast network’s programming head-to-head when it aired in 2006.
“Hell on Wheels” debuted in early November with 4.4 million people watching, second only to the network’s record-breaking launch of “The Walking Dead.”
Leo Braudy, USC professor of mass media and pop culture, said he’s not surprised at the wave of interest in westerns and thinks there will be ample opportunity for TV to depict both the big-sky, optimistic side of the genre and the greed and corruption that was inherent in forging a path across the country.
“We’ve gone through periods where we’ve demythologized the western, focusing on the evil and violence,” Braudy said. “Maybe this next round will re-mythologize it, which could be really intriguing and satisfying for us as an audience.”