This summer's slate of new releases will bring us action films, romantic comedies, vampire vs. werewolf love triangles, animated comedies, and remakes of just about anything you liked in the '80s. But, as has been the case for the last several summers, it won't bring us any Westerns. Does this mean the Western genre is dead? Not necessarily. It just means that it's found a new frontier to settle: cable television.
When you look back at the most memorable films of the last 10 years, the only Western that immediately jumps to mind is Brokeback Mountain, and that's really thought of more as a romance than a Western. Compare this to the '90s, which brought us blockbuster Westerns such as Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, and Last of the Mohicans, and it definitely looks as though audiences have lost interest in the wild, wild West. But while the genre has failed to produce a hit film this past decade, it has produced two major cult hit cable television shows: HBO's now cancelled Deadwood and FX's latest hit, Justified. Here are three reasons Westerns have been working on TV this decade while they've been failing on the big screen:
1) TV found new ways to breathe life into the genre
Although they may be part of the same genre, Deadwood and Justified have little in common with this decade's Western film flops like Open Range and Appaloosa, or even the moderately successful 3:10 to Yuma. These films stuck to the traditional Western format: the story of the stoic cowboy. Deadwood, on the other hand, sets itself apart with its brilliant dialogue. At its heart it was really a Shakespearean tragedy disguised as a Western, and would have most likely enjoyed a long, successful run on HBO had its creator not selfishly decided to abruptly end it to concentrate on another series. And Justified has proven it's possible to bring the genre into the modern age by reinventing it as a new form of crime show. No Western films this decade have tried anything as innovative as either of these TV shows.
2) TV found the perfect modern Western star
Besides their both being Westerns, Deadwood and Justified have one thing in common: Timothy Olyphant. This steely-eyed, slow-talking star looks good in a cowboy hat (he even wore one in his ill-advised move into romantic comedy territory, playing Jennifer Garner's love interest in Catch and Release) and has the quiet tough-guy charisma you need to play the perfect cowboy. Also, because Olyphant was little-known before his role on Deadwood, it was easier for audiences to accept him as being from another era, whereas when big name movie stars like Russell Crowe don a pair of cowboy boots, they tend to just look like modern actors playing dress-up.
3) Slower works better on TV
Although they are often filled with exciting shoot-outs, Westerns are also about atmosphere, namely the slow, desolate atmosphere of the West. This means it can take time for the action to build in a TV series; their stories tend to take longer to tell and as we're all aware by now, American attention spans keep getting shorter. But cable television has become the place where audiences who don't mind investing time and patience in a story turn to for their entertainment. There is no reason why the right Western couldn't succeed on the big screen in the future, but for now the genre seems to have found a different bed to keep its boots under.