Television has always had a fascination with the Wild West — and it’s no wonder. The Wild West was seen as a frontier of lawlessness and chaos, only tamed by the strong and morally resolute. The relative lack of civilization and the constant pursuit of opportunity is an amazing canvas on which to build drama, relationships and even humor.
This wildly famous and critically-acclaimed hit HBO show served as both an exploration of the Wild West and an exploration of civilization and human nature. A witty, fast-paced character-driven script drove this ensemble-based and partially historical show through three seasons. Series creator David Milch intended for Deadwood to show “civilization com[ing] together from chaos” — a theme in both the show and the Wild West frontier. Deadwood included many unique moments and characters ripped from the pages of history books, including Wild Bill Hickok being shot at the poker table, holding the Dead Man’s Hand. Interestingly, Deadwood was never intended to be set in the Wild West but was instead conceived as a show in ancient Rome. Though the series was beloved by most critics, it did draw some criticism for its frequent use of profanities — a deliberate and intentional anachronism by the series creator.
2. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is likely the only popular television western that had a female protagonist. The titular Dr. Michaela Quinn is an accomplished female doctor who decides to leave civilization in Boston to treat the populace of Colorado Springs, a small western town. The series follows her as she attempts to blend into the small town life and to create her own practice. A strange turn of events additionally leads to her adopting three children. Maybe there’s something to be said about the fact that male characters in westerns shoot guns and female characters in westerns become single mothers — but, either way, she managed to create a thriving medical practice in an area that most definitely needed it. As with many wild west shows, Dr. Quinn focused on family life in the Wild West, and the difficulties of building a family in such a tumultuous time. In recent years, the actress showed up in a Breaking Bad spoof; Dr. Quinn, Morphine Woman.
Though it may not be popular today as it once was, it would be impossible to make a list of the best Wild West television shows without mentioning Gunsmoke. Running from 1955 to 1975 with a staggering 635 episodes, Gunsmoke was the longest-running prime-time television drama in the United States. In fact, it was such a long running show that it actually began its life as a radio drama, and there have been rumors that a movie may be coming out. Gunsmoke followed the life of Marshal Matt Dillon, a foster child who began his adult life as a cowboy and ultimately turned towards the law. Watching Gunsmoke today, it might feel as though it is rife with cliches — and it is. But it created many of those cliches, which are still largely used today, four to six decades later.
4. Little House on the Prairie
Everyone knows about Little House on the Prairie — even those who are far too young to have ever watched it. Set in Minnesota in the 1870s, Little House on the Prairie was a drama that touched upon a multitude of serious issues for its time. Alcoholism, adoption, prejudice and even drug addiction were all explored, paving the way for future sitcoms which would also create new moral lessons. Little House on the Prairie was loosely based on a biographical book series, and largely followed a single family as they attempted to work hard and create a comfortable life. Little House on the Prairie also featured many made-for-television movies and, quite inexplicably, the series actually ended with the entire town being blown up. Yes, you read that right; this piece of Americana ended with everyone blowing up their town so that it didn’t fall into the hands of an evil railroad tycoon; can’t get more wild west than that.
5. The Wild Wild West
Let’s end this list on a bit of a fun note. And no, this isn’t the movie. In the 1960s, The Wild Wild West was a clever spoof of the then-prevalent Wild West genre, with two secret service agents attempting to wrangle up outlaws throughout the Old West. The Wild Wild West, which ran for four seasons from 1965 through 1969, both cleverly lampooned Wild West shows while remaining true to the genre. Throughout the series, a significant amount of the humor was derived from the unpredictable and strange gadgets the two agents used. Think of it as a sort of cross between Get Smart and Gunsmoke.
Wild West television shows might not be as popular today as they used to be, but it’s still an area that is rife for revisiting. The Wild West is simply appealing — it’s an era of card sharps and hustlers, cowboys and sheriffs, where a man is only as good as his word and law is only as good as those who can enforce it. There are even Wild West crossover shows, such as Firefly, and there are constantly new Wild West movies coming out. It would seem that our cultural fascination with the Wild West will continue for quite some time.