Manly men doing manly things are big-time on the tube now. Discovery's Deadliest Catch. History's Ax Men. TruTV's Black Gold. So maybe the manliest genre of all -- westerns -- is primed for a comeback.
Why sweat to catch seafood, cut down trees or work an oil rig when you can swagger down the street wearing guns and hot-looking leather, heroically hunting outlaws and cleaning up towns embodying what we now know as The American Way?
Clearly, that's what actors are thinking. A new generation is getting strapped in and saddling up. Luke Perry, known for the soapy saga Beverly Hills 90210, isn't hangin' at the Peach Pit anymore. He's tracking the killer of his wife and kid in Hallmark Channel's new movie A Gunfighter's Pledge (July 5 at 9 PM ET). Another '90s hunk, Kevin "Hercules" Sorbo, played an old-west preacher/bounty hunter in Hallmark's Avenging Angel flick (repeating July 5 at 7 PM.; also out on DVD). They're both part of Hallmark's summer Rough N Ready westerns event: A 30-hour marathon runs from 9 AM July 4 to midnight late July 5 (with breaks for episodes of Walker Texas Ranger and Little House on the Prairie), with more westerns on the way at 9 ET nightly through July.
Also in the mix this holiday weekend -- Encore Westerns, the entire digital channel dedicated to cowboys and gunfighters. Long known as the home of old-timey kid stuff like The Gene Autry Show, more recently Westerns has been sassing up the scene with some 20th century adult attitude. They've added the breezy '50s half-hour Bat Masterson (weekdays at 5 and 5:30 PM, moving next week to 4:30 PM ET), starring Gene Barry as the dandy in a derby with a cane, standing up for the innocents of the west.
Now comes James Garner's wisecrackery in Maverick, which joins the Westerns lineup with a July 4 marathon, running noon-midnight (then airing weekdays at 6 PM ET). It's the tight-fit role that made Garner a star -- sweet-talking, poker-playing, slickster slacker Bret Maverick -- and made westerns lighten up a little. Garner's 1957-60 run on the ABC show propelled him into movie top-billing (Cash McCall with Natalie Wood, The Great Escape with fellow ex-TV studs Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson).
Garner was laconically authentic enough, having been raised in still-wild Oklahoma in the '20s and '30s. (Still working, he's 80 now.) But where other cowboys of that era tended to be earnest and brave -- think of James Arness' Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke or those Cartwrights on Bonanza -- Garner's Bret Maverick was decidedly unheroic. He was instead witty and winky, much happier to connive or cajole his way out of a jam than to shoot his way out. Which he wasn't very good at anyway, another rarity. Bret was prone to spouting folksy advice from his "pappy" and feuding with fellow sharpsters.
And Maverick itself was partial to lampooning other western shows in a TV era dominated by them. (Maverick premiered as one of 20 such shows in 1957, and took its place the following season among a peak of 31 network westerns.) That suited Garner's tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, let the writers run wild in what was becoming a stultifying genre, and helped Maverick stand out in a way that endures today.
Maybe that's what it would take for the western to reestablish itself in today's TV landscape. We're hip to all the tricks, and we want our shows to be, too. Yet the westerns tried in the last couple of decades -- The Young Riders, The Magnificent Seven, Lonesome Dove: The Series -- took themselves pretty seriously.
Only two got the wit right, but they were on fledging networks that didn't give them the chance to establish themselves. The young Fox network in 1993 tried The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., starring the inimitably droll Bruce Campbell, who expertly carried on the Maverick legacy of clever talk in place of fast guns, while also mixing in wildly anachronistic James Bond-ian contraptions. That, in fact, was the premise of UPN's 1995 hour Legend, starring Richard Dean Anderson as a sort of MacGyver of the old west aided by John DeLancie's brainiac professor.
They didn't last long, likely prematurely yanked from the air because the shows cost so much to produce, with all those period sets and clothes, not to mention horses and vintage trains. TV today might have a hard time sustaining such a series, too, when it's exponentially cheaper for the networks to crank out another reality concept instead. It'll probably take a big-time star insisting he wants to go west to bring the genre back to series. In the meantime, hunks like Perry and Sorbo at least get TV movies to remind us how much fun cowboys can be. And hot young James Garner is back on the air to show 'em all how it's done.