Western TV shows are making a comeback. Turn on the television or scroll through social media, and it’s easy to see that some of the most popular shows today showcase Western themes.
Hollywood has had a long love affair with the Western genre, starting in the 1920s with films starring Tom Mix and his beloved horse Tony, all the way through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, with the likes of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Roy Rogers. In 1990, Dances With Wolves won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and in 1992, Unforgiven, another western, followed suit.
Television hasn’t been around as long as motion pictures, but it, too, has always loved the Western world. Examples include Bonanza, Wagon Train, The Virginian, High Chaparral, Death Valley Days, The Lone Ranger, Deadwood—and the list goes on.
It’s easy to see this trend has endured decades, but what is it about the Western genre that keeps audiences enraptured?
“Audiences have long been enchanted by the myth of the American west,” says author and filmmaker Petrine Day Mitchum, who is currently producing From Rawhide to Rhinestones, a documentary series on Western fashion and cowboy culture.
“It harkens back to a simpler time of endless possibility and rough justice,” Mitchum continues. “The classic Western hero is a bold individual, self-reliant, resourceful and ready to right all wrongs. These are the qualities we all aspire to, so identifying with these heroes is immensely satisfying, particularly in stressful times. With so much of our civilization in turmoil, it’s no wonder the Western genre is making a big comeback—not that it ever really went too far away!”
Today’s westerns emphasize authenticity in everything from the location and costuming to the dialogue and subject matter. This includes the key addition of female characters who are as important to the story as their male counterparts.
“Strong women have often appeared in classic westerns, but the genre has typically been the domain of the alpha male,” Mitchum says. “Today’s popular westerns, from the period 1883 to the modern Yellowstone, prominently feature women who embody classic cowboy characteristics.”
Current television shows are also more racially inclusive and present a more realistic view of Native Americans.
“These subtle shifts in the genre reflect our more enlightened views while remaining true to the core values that we find so comforting,” Mitchum says.
Ready to get Western? Consider adding these four engaging Western-themed shows to your watch list.
Becoming the most-watched streaming series on television for two years in a row was just the beginning of Yellowstone’s nationwide revolution. This Western drama, set in modern times, airs exclusively on the Paramount+ network. The show stars Kevin Costner, who became an icon of the Western genre when he starred in the Academy Award-winning epic Dances with Wolves in 1990. In Yellowstone, Costner plays John Dutton, the patriarch of the Dutton family, descendants of homesteaders who are desperately trying to hold on to their Montana ranch.
Written by actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, who starred in Sons of Anarchy as David Hale, Yellowstone rings true because Sheridan writes what he knows. Having grown up on a Wyoming ranch, Sheridan has seen the ranching way of life up close and personal, and understands the challenges Western ranchers face today.
Yellowstone takes place on the Yellowstone Ranch, a stunning piece of land situated on thousands of acres in northern Montana. The ranch is viciously guarded by the Dutton family, which has raised cattle there since the late 1800s. John Dutton shares the ranch with adult children Kayce, Jamie, and Lee, and daughter, Beth. Intense family dynamics combine with pressures of various outside forces, all of which threaten to destroy the Duttons and everything the family has built over the decades.
The incredible Montana landscape as seen through the lens of cinematographer Ben Richardson is enough to make audiences understand why the Duttons fight so hard to keep their land. As developers set their sights on the beautiful countryside, the idea of it being paved over and blemished with McMansions puts viewers squarely on the Duttons’ side.
The 21st century cowboy lifestyle also takes center stage on Yellowstone as the Duttons and their crew of cowhands, led by heartthrob Rip Wheeler (who’s played by Cole Houser), herd and doctor cattle, and breed expensive reining horses. Rollicking scenes in the cowhands’ shared bunkhouse are among the highlights of each episode.
Yellowstone’s success has spawned three spinoffs, also written by Sheridan: 1883, 6666 (aka The Four Sixes) and 1923. Released in December 2021, 1883 is a prequel that tells the story of the Duttons coming to Montana, while 6666, currently in production, follows present-day Yellowstone character Jimmy Hurdstrom (played by Jefferson White) as he goes from drug dealer and petty thief to a bonafide cowboy at the famous 6666 Ranch in Texas. Also available to watch is 1923, another prequel that provides a bridge between 1883 and Yellowstone, focusing on the Dutton’s post-World War I life on their Montana ranch during Prohibition.
Origin stories have become a popular addition to many television shows, and 1883 is one of the most popular spin-offs currently streaming. This 10-episode series on Paramount+ takes viewers along with an earlier version of Yellowstone’s Dutton family as they journey from Tennessee to Montana during the great westward migration.
The show stars country music legends Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, along with veteran actor Sam Elliott and newcomer Isabel May. Tom Hanks and Billy Bob Thornton make cameo appearances, rounding out a star-studded cast. Written by Taylor Sheridan, 1883 was filmed in Texas and Montana, and is set in Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming, and Oregon.
1883 tells the story of James and Margaret Dutton, the great-great grandparents of Yellowstone’s John Dutton, and their children John and Elsa. It begins when the family, who left Tennessee to head west, joins a group of European immigrants on their way to Oregon. The group is led by Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott), a Civil War veteran who recently lost his wife and daughter to smallpox. Hired by the Pickerton Company to get the immigrants to their destination, Shea agrees to let the Duttons join the group in exchange for James Duttons’ help with the group’s herd of cattle.
Despite the big-name stars who appear in this epic series, the true star is Isabel May as 18-year-old Elsa. It’s Elsa who narrates the series, helping viewers understand both the beauty and the horror of the difficult journey. Difficult only begins to describe the depth of struggles as the travelers endure hardships that are hard for modern viewers to fathom.
Taylor Sheridan once said his goal with 1883 was to help today’s television viewers understand how arduous it was for emigrants to make the journey across the plains to the west. 1883 accomplishes this and then some. After watching, audiences not only appreciate what the pioneers went through but also have a renewed understanding of why the Duttons want so desperately to hold on to Yellowstone Ranch.
Another modern-day Western series is Dark Winds, a psychological thriller that takes place in the 1970s on the Navajo Reservation. Starring Zahn McClarnon, the show focuses on the efforts of McClarnon’s character, tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn. McClarnon and most of the cast are Native American, as are the writers of the show.
Based on the bestselling Leaphorn & Chee novels by Tony Hillerman, Dark Winds airs on the AMC network, and is produced by McClaron, Robert Redford, and George R.R. Martin, writer of the Game of Thrones series.
Besides a riveting mystery and phenomenal acting, Dark Winds features amazing vistas of some of the most beautiful parts of the Navajo Reservation. This includes the spires and plateaus of Monument Valley, which appeared in several classic John Ford westerns from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, starring John Wayne. The films Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, Stagecoach, and Rio Grande gave movie audiences a glimpse of this spectacular landscape, making it a symbol of the west on the silver screen.
In Dark Winds, Monument Valley is not a backdrop for cowboys and covered wagons, but is instead shown in its true historical context as the home of the Navajo people.The red desert of Navajoland provides the perfect backdrop for the mystery in Dark Winds. And while the scenery is stunning, it’s the murder mystery that keeps audiences riveted from episode to episode.
The first episode introduces viewers to Leaphorn and his two deputies as they try to solve a grisly murder while the FBI lurks, hoping to capture a group of brazen bank robbers that escaped to the Rez. As Leaphorn strives to solve the murder, viewers begin to understand what life was like for Navajo people in the 1970s, when the revolutionary American Indian Movement (AIM) was being born, and when poverty and anti-Indian sentiment made solving a murder on the Rez even harder than it is today.
Because Dark Winds is penned by Native American writers, audiences get to hear a story of the West from the Native perspective—a relatively new phenomenon in film and TV.
Wild West Chronicles
True stories of the wild west have long fascinated audiences. Some of the best western films are based on those stories—with a touch of Hollywood added. But while well-known tales like the fight at the O.K. Corral and the Great Train Robbery have long been loved on the silver screen, lesser-known stories can be just as engaging and even educational for viewers of all ages.
Enter Wild West Chronicles, a docudrama series that first aired on the INSP network and can now be streamed on Peacock. Featuring half-hour segments that each tell the story of someone well known in the 1800s, the show entertains and offers learning opportunities simultaneously.
Each episode of Wild West Chronicles begins with real-life lawman, buffalo hunter, Army scout, and gambler-turned-journalist Bat Masterson researching the story of a figure in the American west. The first episode features Masterson interviewing Emmett Dalton, the only surviving brother of the infamous Dalton Brothers, known for their train and bank robberies. Emmett Dalton went on to become a movie cowboy during the silent film era after serving time in prison for murder. In Wild West Chronicles, he tells his story to Masterson as audiences watches it unfold.
In the first two seasons of Wild West Chronicles, the show covers wild west celebrities such as sharpshooter Annie Oakley, gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok, and artist Charles Russell. But even more fascinating are the stories about the characters few have heard of, such as Pearl Hart, the first female stagecoach robber; Dr. Susan Anderson, a female pioneer doctor; Bass Reeves, an escaped slave turned lawman; and Mary Fields, a former slave who became a fearless mail carrier; and many more.
While the show doesn’t have a cast with strong name recognition, Wild West Chronicles boasts excellent writing, production, and unmatched authenticity. Attention to detail makes it easy for viewers to travel back to the old west, one of the most amazing times in our nation’s history.
This article about Western TV shows appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Western Life Today. Click here to subscribe!