It looks like the Western is making a comeback on television. Buoyed by the success of Western styled modern-day shows like Justified, and the popularity of the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit on the big screen people are now willing to take a risk on a genre long thought dead.
Westerns were once the foundation of film-making and television. A lot of the advancements in movie technology, storytelling, and subject matter in the first half of cinema history happened because of Westerns.
The simple fact that we refer to the movie/TV business as "Hollywood" comes from the fact that filmmakers started migrating there in the 1910s-1920s. Why did they migrate to Hollywood and make it the center of the movie universe? Because it was easier and more realistic to shoot Westerns outdoors in southern California than in the movie biz's original base of New York City.
Early Westerns from the 19-teens through the 1940s were mostly confident tales of Manifest Destiny. Brave heroes went into the wilderness, fought outlaws, and Indians angry over losing their land, and always won in the name of civilization. The size of the films went from Poverty Row cheaply made shoot-em-ups to grand big budget epics made by the major studios, and audiences couldn't get enough of them.
In the 1950s television literally exploded in the middle of pop culture, and Westerns played an important part.
Most of the early TV Westerns were reflections of the sanitized view of the Old West presented in the pre-WW2 movies.
Most were straightforward action - adventure shows, however Gunsmoke, was played as more of an attempt at serious drama, that tried to scrape at least some of the polish off the genre to show some of the grime beneath. The formula must have worked, because the show went on to run for 20 years.
This was happening as well on the big screen. Filmmakers who experienced the horrors of WW2 cast a more cynical eye on the normally myth-heavy genre, with films like The Ox-Bow Incident and The Searchers. Westerns even changed how Hollywood does business when Jimmy Stewart broke the old star system, and made himself a full partner in the profits from the movie Winchester '73 instead of being just a paid contract player.
The 60s marked another shift in the Western genre on the big and small screens. Italian filmmakers, both in love with the image of the lone western hero, and fired by fashionable Marxist rhetoric, took German money to Fascist Spain and gave birth to the Spaghetti Western.
These films took post-war cynicism to the limit, showing a world riddled with capitalist corruption, and coated in a layer of grime and sweat.
Not wanting to be outdone by the Italians, American filmmakers, specifically Sam Peckinpah, broke their own new ground. Usually this was in the field of how to shoot action, as seen in the beautiful/horrifying ballet of death and destruction seen in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.
However, the Western on television stayed more of less the same. Most Western shows were viewed as strictly "family entertainment," and were unable to take advantage of the advances coming from Europe and their big screen colleagues.
The Spaghetti Western's rebellious exuberance started to fade in the early 1970s. Europe's Marxist student rebellions of the late 1960s fizzled into the self-centered hedonism of the 1970s. Leone, the John Ford of Italian cinema, reflected this disillusionment in his last Western movie Duck, You Sucker! (AKA A Fistful of Dynamite). It portrayed revolution, as the youth of the 1960s envisioned it, as needlessly destructive and ultimately futile.
TV Westerns however, continued to be, for the most part fossilized, and one by one, they fell, until none stood. Every once in a while a new Western would pop up, sometimes in modern dress, but like their predecessors they were treated as family entertainment and not worth much creative effort beyond thinking of ways to couch them with some sort of moral lesson.
That changed with HBO's Deadwood, which was a warts and all portrayal of the Old West more akin to the films of Peckinpah and Leone than predecessors like Bonanza. The didn't catch on as big as its gangster counterpart The Sopranos, but it left its mark. Now many channels are saddling up to bring the Western back, possibly because they realize that there really is some life left in the genre and interest on the part of the audience.
Now this is where you, my readers can chime in: What do you think about Westerns making a comeback?