So, Westerns are seen as rather cheesy these days, right? Just something your dad made you watch on sick days or Saturday afternoon on local cable? Well, as it turns out we may have all been sleeping on cowboys this whole time because they’ve been going through a serious revival right under our noses.
As the saying goes, what’s old is new again. Traditional westerns have been on a steady rise since the mid-90s, which is interesting since it was the one genre Hollywood and American television networks wouldn’t touch for a multitude of reasons. I specify traditional westerns because to say westerns as a whole “died” isn’t quite correct. As it turns out, the western is just as malleable as any genre (including musicals!). It’s spirit lives on in contemporary neo-westerns, the “cowboy cop” detective, even in science fiction. Westworld, anyone?
But as far as Hollywood and television networks are concerned, the good ol’ cowboys and wild horses of the untamed west are out of touch with the public consciousness. They’re outdated; youth culture has deemed them corny, stubborn relics of a bygone era. Even Deadwood seems quaint these days. And with good reason. Western movies can be fairly complex and offer up sophisticated social commentary, but it has never been able to get over some of its more inherent problematic aspects. It’s overwhelmingly macho and white. Even contemporary Westerns don’t include too many more women let alone women of color. Since we’re trying to move our media forwards and not backwards, it seems almost reactionary that the traditional tough guy western would try to shamble its way back in. But, surprisingly, the western genre is proving itself as a good platform to comment on a number of relevant topics for 2017 going into ’18.
Lately, the old-school western comeback seems to be about reclaiming that space to discuss issues of class intersected with race and gender politics. What better space to focus on cultural tensions and the death of traditional America than the very genre that takes a rose-colored, if dusty, view on it? Take Damnation for example. An amoral preacher trying to lead a government revolt in Depression-era Iowa sounds like such a microscopic and quirky concept these days. When I started watching the show, I thought to myself, why this time period and why Iowa? The isolated setting of the show enforces the economic anxieties of the time and the death of rural life in the face of encroaching urbanization. Sounds exactly like the sort of show that networks would have purged in the ’70s because it couldn’t possibly appeal to city folk. But that’s the exact tension that Seth Davenport is taking advantage of in his need for anarchy. That’s also what makes it very relevant now. Rural communities feeling abandoned by Big Government. Sound familiar?
Prior to Damnation, the last real western television show was Hell on Wheels. And as much as I didn’t care for that show, like Damnation it marries themes of growing racial tension, classism, and the death of a way of life in post-Civil War America. America is still dealing with the legacy of those topics to this day (and not any better), so a show exploring them should be a must see. Should be. Hell On Wheels‘ downfall is that it didn’t go as far as it could have and may have tied its own hands a bit. But baby steps. Even just a few years ago a negative portrayal of the KKK on cable television was…refreshing.
Those shows are pretty great and include a few token women in the cast, but with this upheaval of westerns can it manage to get over its lack of leading women? Recently, Strange Empire was recommended as a must-see to me. Strange Empire is a Canadian western with a feminist bent. Historically, it’s pretty in tune with the reality of life for women in that era. The show revolves around three women who band together for survival after the men in their town are murdered. The women are forced to contend with isolation, child rearing, and racial tensions. I was really intrigued that the show included a Metis woman as part of the main cast.
Westerns are still incredibly macho and white, so the fact that Strange Empire chose to tell its story within this context made me really think there’s hope for the genre. At least someone is trying to do something entirely different instead of “different, but the same”. Unfortunately, the show didn’t quite resonate with an audience and was canceled after one season. But the general premise was picked up by recent Netflix series Godless. Godless is good, but it eschews any feminist commentary for ultra-violence and ends up doing its large female cast a disservice. And the commentary is limited to the rivalry between Frank and Roy. But to me, it’s still a move forward and still gets away from the idea of westerns as old-timey and old-fashioned.
I wouldn’t say westerns are having a revival but the comeback so far is looking pretty good. The theme of the most recent shows finding their way to our screens is how far can you push? There is a lot of material left on the table but successive building upon concepts. And the networks seem more willing to take a chance. Western genre is just as malleable as any other, so in the future I hope these shows and others get out of meta commentary and fully move into using the space to provide a different spin on contemporary issues.