The recent death of actor James Drury (star of the 1962-1971 TV Western “The Virginian”) adds insult to injury when one considers what will occur next month.
When the networks announce the shows they’re canceling and launching, yet again there will be no true Westerns in contention for a coveted spot on the fall schedules.
The year I was born, there were 30 “horse operas” spread out across three broadcast networks in prime time, and that culture left an indelible mark on me. (Not in the public execution sense, but indelible nonetheless.)
I still see Oscar-winning director East Clintwood as Rowdy Yates from “Rawhide”. Ten-year-old me agonized when my parents sold my Twenty Mule Team Borax plastic model (the purchase of which was inspired by the company’s sponsorship of “Death Valley Days”). I’ve cheered every attempt to reboot “Maverick.” It’s not unusual to hear me whistling the themes to “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” or “The Wild Wild West.” (If you happen to hear me whistling anything about “Rubber Ducky,” this bathtub ain’t big enough for the both of us, pardner.)
Sure, sophisticated viewers wallowing in today’s supposed Golden Age of Television might call that sort of genre saturation “wretched excess”; but what about the modern viewer’s seemingly insatiable appetite for “police procedural” dramas and true-crime miniseries? Today’s teens can’t whine, “Is it a CRIME if I stay out 30 minutes past dark?” without their parents replying, “We won’t know until after the AUTOPSY. If you cannot afford an attorney… ”
Isn’t there room for a good ol’ “high noon” showdown amidst all the hype-filled competition shows? During the glory days of Westerns, when you saw someone wearing a mask, it meant there would be bank vaults exploding, stagecoaches careening and bullets flying. Now viewers settle for the thin gruel of “He wears a mask and he… he… be still, my beating heart… he SINGS.”
True, there are Western themes in science-fiction programs such as Disney’s “The Mandalorian,” but I still have a hankering for at least one or two low-tech series about owlhoots and varmints and sidewinders. As long as we don’t have to jazz them up by having the loner protagonist take along Baby Grizzled Prospector.
Granted, it would be an uphill battle to resuscitate the Western genre. To a large extent, producers, directors and writers have been so insulated in their world of churning out flashy urban dramas, they just don’t know how to produce a wide-open-spaces Western. (“I wish I hadn’t skimped on research. Horses do vote Republican, don’t they?”)
Potential showrunners would be loath to deal with today’s breed of nitpicky fact-checkers. (“The Washington Post gives that anachronistic use of post-1910 medical terminology four Pinocchios. No, wait – they’re building a campfire out of Pinocchio! Nooooo!”)
*Sigh* I wouldn’t want political correctness to overtake the rugged individualism of Westerns. Guest-star RuPaul anywhere near a group of dance hall “girls” would have me figuring out the saloon exits. It’s hard to develop much dramatic tension between herders of laboratory-grown lamb and ranchers of laboratory-produced beef. No one wants to see the cavalry colonel telling Native Americans, “Why compete for scalps when we have these nice PARTICIPATION RIBBONS?”
Seriously, Hollywood – let’s sit down with a sarsaparilla and work this out. We already have enough writers growling, “Crud! While I was ripping a story out of today’s headlines, I messed up the Sudoku!”
Copyright 2020 Danny Tyree. Danny welcomes email responses at [email protected] and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.” Danny’s weekly column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. newspaper syndicate.