20 Great Western Television Shows
The Television Western
The best television Western to come down the tracks in decades is Hell on Wheels. No one ever said building a railroad would be easy. Add to this hostile Indians who are aware of the fact that trains will destroy their way of life, plus a mad preacher and you indeed have hell.
There have been recent movies that have touched upon the old West such as the Ghost Rider series. In the old days is was a blazing man on a demonic horse. In modern times it is a demonic motorbike.
One fairly new Western movie worth touching upon is Jonah Hex (2010). Based on a D. C. comics character it has a bit of the supernatural like Ghost Rider. But it is set soon after the American Civil War with Hex as a Reb bounty hunter as ugly as sin and just as damned.
Here we will look at 20 top notch Television Westerns. Some you may already know. Others haven't been around for some time but are making a come back on DVD or should do any time now. I am not going to have them in order of excellence but there will be 20 to amuse you.
In my 20 there is the temptation to add My Favorite Martian since this character did travel back in time at least once to the old West. In one episode he met Jesse James.
In my 20 I suppose I could have included Wanted: Dead or Alive which was a big hit and boosted Steve McQueen's career. It ran from 1959 to 1961 and was about a bounty hunter and those he hunts in the name of justice, the law and, of course, making a living.
Prior to Wanted: Dead or Alive McQueen was best known for his role in the movie The Blob. Possibly his best all round role was in the Western movie The Magnificent Seven.
This Western about cattlemen on various cattle drives is legendary. Its lead song has taken on a life of its own and has appeared in many Western and also Country albums. Clint Eastwood made a name for himself being in this television series. He also got typecast for a time. This led to him starring in some successful spaghetti Westerns such as For a Few Dollars More. Rawhide is in black and white.
Approved by John Wayne with an introduction by him for the first episode Gunsmoke had the seal of approval from the start. And no, John Wayne didn't star in this show. He just did the introduction.
Dodge City can be a rough place to hang your hat. Especially if you are Matt Dillon, the Marshall. Some episodes are in black and white. Some episodes are in color.
3. Life and legend of Wyatt Earp.
This was a black and white Desilu Western. We are told in the lead song that he didn't really want to be a Marshall but the role came to be his because someone had to do it and he had what it took to keep the peace. He was often shown dressed in dark clothes as was typical of the man in real life.
This is however a highly romanticized view of Wyatt Earp and should not be mistaken for so many snippets of history being acted out.The real man lived a less noble and more questionable life. Good shootouts make this a prize for anyones collection of television Westerns.
4. The Adventures of Jim Bowie.
Here a special knife is often featured in the fight scenes which suits me down to the ground. Set in Louisiana territory around 1830 this is a black and white treat. As with the television Wyatt Earp this is a romanticized version of the life and times of Jim Bowie and not to be confused with snippets of history being acted out for the television audience. Another Desilu effort.
5. Wild Wild West
This has got to be the wildest and strangest of Westerns. Two government agents with all sorts of 19th Century gadgetry take on all who would disrupt the civilizing of the West. The way in which scenes are changed is something special and to be looked out for.
Not to be taken too seriously but a hell of a lot of fun. The movie they made in more recent times was deservedly a dud. It had nothing on this wonderfully whimsical and action packed series.
Sugarfoot is another term for tenderfoot or, to put it into regular English, someone new to the West or too young to know much. It is about a young man with a talent for fair dealing and gun play.
Maverick means unbranded cow or bull. It also stands for a man with a carefree life style who isn't tied down. This was a great television Western that gave James Garner his fame as an actor.
It also gave Roger Moore the chance to act in a Western series. Maverick, whoever took the role, was a smooth talking gambler who was more prone to talking his way out of a fight than actually dueling anyone. A lot of twisted and rather fun episodes. The more recent movie version was a big let down.
8. Bat Masterson.
This is another television Western about a famous Western character that bends the truth a might. He was called bat because he had a tendency to carry around a baseball bat to break heads with. In the TV show the bat has been replaced with a more elegant cane. In both the show and in real life, however, he could use a gun when it was required.
In the show he appears to be a bit of an Eastern dude. In real life he was more like a thug who had moved West. In real life for a time he'd been the Marshall of Dodge city.
9. Annie Oakley.
A female sharpshooter who can do trick riding. Who could ask for anything more? Maybe she should be as pretty as Gail Davis who plays the lead role in this Western series that has little if anything to do with the real Annie Oakley's life and times.
Still I am sure the real Annie wouldn't have minded since she was a show person in her own right and was a sharpshooter extraordinaire and no doubt would like to be remembered that way. She was also short in the saddle like Gail Davis.
10. The Lone Ranger.
This much loved masked Western character was on radio, in the comics and also his own magazine and then in movie serials before becoming a hit on television. Hi Ho Silver away! Who was that masked man? His calling card? A silver bullet. He rides for justice for all including the native Indians.
11. Broken Arrow.
Keeping the peace between white man and red was not always easy for Indian Agent Tom Jeffords. He was helped somewhat by Apache chief Cochise. This is one of the very few television Westerns that actually attempt to tell the story of the West not only from the view of the white man but the Indian as well. For this it should have a special place in television Western history.
12. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
This is a western that also attempts to tell the story of the West from the point of view of both the settler and the Indian. It doesn't quite do so in the more gracious style of Broken Arrow but at least the attempt is there.
A woman from the East travels West where she practices medicine at a time when women were not supposed to be doctors. She also learns something about medicine from the Indians.
Set in California at the time when the Spanish ruled this may not be everyone's idea of a Western but I will include it anyway. Guy Williams as Zorro proved to be a great swordsman in his own right.
Years after Zorro was over he visited Mexico and was mobbed by people wanting his autograph. He never let his family forget how much loved he was in that country and probably still is. He was able to do some sword fighting in Lost in Space but it was as Zorro that he really came into his own in this respect. There is one episode of Zorro where he uses a gun instead of a sword but it is a rather disappointing episode.
For over a decade viewers were asked to follow the adventures of the Cartwright family on their ranch and this is what many viewers did. Michael Landon got his start here as Little Joe. Dan Blocker was popular as the big, soft-hearted Hoss. Michael Landon went on to star in Little House on the Prairie.
Running a stagecoach stop can be mighty dangerous in the West. A popular western series.
16. F Troop.
This was a Western to definitely not take serious but to simply enjoy. A bungling army officer manages to win a battle in the American Civil War and when the war is over is assigned to be in charge of a fort in the not so wild west. The fort? It has the whimsical name of Fort Courage.
There is of course a nearby Indian tribe. Some pains were taken to make sure this Indian tribe was fictitious and could not have any tie-ins with genuine North American Indians. Their name says it all. They are the Hekawis. They are the lost tribe. As explained in an episode, they wandered and wandered for many, many moons until one of them asked the vital question: "Where the heck are we?" Hence they became the Hekawis.
17. The Rifleman.
A man who is a dead shot with a rifle buys a ranch where he and his son can live. This is a Western show that begins with a blazing rifle. It is also a Western series with lots of heart.
18. Have Gun Will travel.
If I was presenting the television Western in order this would definitely be closer to the top of the list. This show is about Paladin, a hired gun who works out of San Francisco but mainly if not exclusively out west. He is fast on the draw and his calling card is a black knight chess piece. In the movie comedy Western Evil Roy Slade there is a weird though successful send-up of Paladin.
Set in the 1870s, this Western is very modern and adheres to history to a stronger extent than many previous western shows. It is also more brutal and cynical. The town is wild and untamed and anyone who tries to establish law and order better not just be quick on the draw but also have someone to watch his back.
20. Alias Smith and Jones.
Two outlaws want to go straight but they must work for the government incognito for a time before they get their pardons. This means while they are trying to go straight they get shot at by not only the bad guys but the good guys as well. A fun romp with guns blazing.
Well, there you have my twenty. I hope you enjoy the read and I hope for some of you I have rekindled fond memories.
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Characters that don't quite fit into society as we know it happen to be the stuff of good television. They are the fish out of water we sometimes admire and sometimes have our fingers crossed for.
The Great Gatsby, The Red Badge of Courage, A Stainless Steel Rat is Born, Brave New World, 1984, Story of O, Tender is the Night, Wasp, Dune, Twilight Healer, A Study in Scarlet, Dracula, Jazz.