Go West, Young Viewer

After putting together and talking about the post on made for TV movies, I was talking to my grandfather (Papaw) about them. I call him every Sunday and have for nearly the entire time I haven’t been living in the same town.  We lived on a dirt road in Texas and my grandparents’ house was at the end, we were about halfway down, hayfields, gardens, horses, cows, bees, emus at one time, all in between. He couldn’t remember watching The Spring, though he did say that was twenty years ago and he was starting to get old. He turned 89 this past May 4th.

We then started talking about the westerns that came on television during the same span of time. Many of those we watched together, too. Through the conversation he listed a few he could remember and I added to them and had to take to the computer to find the title of one neither of us could remember but knew several key plot points–more on that one later. As I was making the list with him, there were a couple that were also part of an evening’s entertainment at my other grandparents’ house across town, which may be what these posts have actually been about.

Young Riders ABC September 20, 1989-July 23, 1992

This list starts on the other side of my family. I remember watching this one with my mother’s mother (Bigmama) when I was in elementary school. The premise is all in the promo, the riders, young in age, were the pony express, and here it was dramatized with the likes of Stephen Baldwin and Josh Brolin among others. The big plot point here was Lou, a young girl who played throughout as if she were a boy to join the riders. She’s found out early by one, and in true television fashion no one else does until later and they go on to a happy ending. There were some nice trick riding and the series felt and looked more like shorter made for TV Louis Lamour films–that is, more cinematic than TV production I’d say.  Debuting the year after the feature film Young Guns some critics brushed it off as a clone, but it went on to moderate success as it time slot changed.

Cowboys of Moo Mesa, ABC September 12, 1992-December 4, 1993

I went back and forth on including this one, so I did some more reading about it to figure out how to wedge it in. It isn’t that hard since it debuted on Saturday Morning network television around the time many other westerns were coming on in prime time, and it gives me a chance to share the covers of the comics. Standard mutated anthropomorphic heroes of the 90s here with cows, and select other western critters gaining sentience and bipedality from a glowing comet. Not horses though.

The cowboys are Code Of the West C.O.W.s standing up for law and order and such should the intro be believed. I remember this quite well, enough that when we were in elementary school we would alternate between playing ninja turtles to running around playing this. It also had one of the better uses of western tropery with an American Bison as a Native American voiced by Michael Horse. I’ve read that it sometimes fits the “weird west” genre (ya think?) because of some later supernatural storylines (Skull Duggery) and many of J.R..s (Michael Horse) science fiction inventions.  If you are an early 90s country music aficionado you may recognize the intro theme singer as Billy Dean. Dean write and recorded the theme  and received the Top New Male Vocalist Award at the CMA’s the same year this show debuted (1992).

The characters are spinoffs of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, as such, spun off in different media including comics–with a really fun cowboys and dinosaurs arc in the second (and final) series of 3. There were also toys, activity and coloring books as well as larger format story time books for children. I don’t think any of this would have worked out quite as well had it not hit at the precise time that Ninja Turtles were a hit and westerns were coming back to television. They, and the town, were included as an easter egg in the 2003 TMNT series as part of a virtual reality program in the Fast Forward arc near the end of the series.

Konami also had this title as an arcade game. It was a reskinned version of Sunset Riders.

 

The rest of this might as well be called “A salute to CBS,” as all but two of the remaining titles aired on that station in the 1990s.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, CBS January 1, 1993-May 16, 1998 

I’m still at Bigmama’s house on this one too, but this was on television for five years, spanned 149 episodes, two television movies, and (I very recently learned) 19 novels with the last one published in 2011.  I feel like anyone who lived through these years has some sort of connection to this program no matter how tangential. Wealthy Boston women with medical training Michaela Quinn (“Dr. Mike”) moves west, serendipitously (or given the circumstances serpentitiously) gains a family, and the love of an outdoorsman who is a cross between Cooper’s Hawkeye, make that Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye (The Last of the Mohicans was released in 1992) and Billy Ray Cyrus.

I’m sure the intro changed at least once during the six seasons, but this is the one I remember, and it may not even be the first one.

Walker, Texas Ranger CBS September 25, 1993-May 19, 2001

This may be a “modern western” in the same sense as the series Dallas, and it shouldn’t be on here, but it came on directly after Dr. Quinn and if I was staying the night at Bigmama and Papa’s then we’d watch them both. I’m not going to pull out any plot points or anything, but to say that the adveritising sponsor was Chrysler, and it started with Cordell driving one of the new Dodge Rams, and all the villains in GM and Ford products, and lasted until Dodge was ready to re-reinvent the Ram again.  Over 200 episodes and at least one TV movie, it’s on here more for the 90s than for the Western part.

This was the first intro that I remember, I guess it may have changed every season.

The last intro I remember, and the one I have seen parodied most often is this “eyes of a ranger” one from season 7. I have no idea

Here this one says it is all of them and it’s over six minutes long

Ned Blessing, CBS August 1993

This was the one whose name escaped us both. Turns out, there is good reason for that. It only ran four episodes. What we did remember though was that the saloon in this series had an interesting decoration at the end of the bar in the form of the town’s previous sheriff’s head in a pickle jar. That is what we both remembered. Luckily that was enough to find a line in a Google book that held the title and I was able to search and boy did I find some great stuff, once I found the promos I instantly remembered everything. I would walk down to Papaw’s house and we’d watch this with either bowls of ice cream or coke floats.

One episode had more than a littler supernatural  themes when the sheriff’s body finally gets its head back. They are on DVD through Amazon, look like two episodes per disc, but I’m not sure. I’ll probably order them though. The Dead Man’s Revenge one is listed, but the other one I hope is on another disc is “Oscar” That was the one that held the epiphany. The “Oscar” in question is one Oscar Wilde who did in fact visit American in 1882 and 1883. The premise is he is lost on his way to Galveston and ends up in Plum Creek, much to the delight of some of the townsfolk making fun of his velvet westerning suit, and manners.

The incomparable Stephen Fry plays Wilde in this event a few years before the brilliant portrayal in the biopic Wilde. It was Fry, Wilde, and Texas in the same western. I was ten, and it wasn’t long before I was finding Jeeves and Wooster and A bit of Fry and Laurie and reading more of and on Wilde. One of the days I worked on this, the memory below came up on Facebook. Christi and I have known each other since we were babies in church together for years before school. She’s the person that’s not family who I have known the longest, and she sent me this:

It really is a delightful episode and one the encompasses a good bit of the feel of the show, others are far more darker, at least that I can recall, but in the event that it isn’t on one of the DVDs, some gorgeous soul has uploaded it onto ye olde youtube.

To add to the confusion, there was a Ned Blessing: The True Story of My Life and Times made for TV movie in 1992 that was presumable and it somewhat seems to be the pilot for this series. The biggest trouble here is that the title character was played by another actor. I’ve never seen that one that I can recall, so it seems the series is okay on it’s own, it’s all shaped around episodes as flashbacks so that is a good plot device for moving things around. I’m interesting to get the DVDs and see how they hold up.

 

Intermission: Not so Lonesome Doves…

It seems like 88-93 was a condensed renaissance of TV westerns, and part of the ilk, also on CBS were the two sequels to Lonesome Dove. The one written by John Wilder, Return to Lonesome Dove aired in November 1993, and isn’t considered canon.

In November 1995 Larry McMurtry’s official sequel Streets of Laredo  aired on CBS.

Brisco County Jr. Fox, August 27, 1993, May 20, 1994 

This one, fully titled The Adventures o Brisco County, Jr.  came on Fox, of which our affiliate was channel 29 from Lake Charles, Louisiana. It didn’t always come in, but I remember we watched a few episodes of this one. I didn’t know it until years later that this was considered a “steampunk western.” That was mainly from lacking any notion of what steampunk was, or if it was even a thing in 1993. I know we both said it reminded us of the original Wild, Wild West, so there’s that. It has some strong science fiction motifs which apparenly gets it lumped into a genre called the “Weird West” and upon other research, this seems to be the best kind.  At only 27 episodes, it’s very well worth the DVD set.

Legend, UPN, April 18, 1995-August 22, 1995

I’ve never seen this one. I don’t think I have seen anything on the UPN channel. But it’s contemporary with most of these and thematically similar to Brisco so I am including it to remind myself to buy the DVD after payday. The whole setup for this one sounds fantastic: dime novel author creates hero, someone pretends to be the hero committing crimes, books in first person make people think the author is hero, fake hero author has to find fake hero villain to clear book hero’s character. All 12 episodes are on DVD and currently about $7 on Amazon so, of course I am going to check it out, if for nothing more than to see how they set up the Nikolas Tesla character in 1995.

Magnificent Seven, CBS January 3, 1998-July 3, 2000 

I remember watching the pilot episode of this with Papaw. It also seemed like forever between seasons. There were only 22 episodes but the character stood out, and it is the last period western I can remember being on television. A series based on a western remake of a japanese film worked surprisingly well with no more or fewer cliches. I most distinctly remember Ron Pearlman’s preacher character. It was a more diverse cast with one of the seven being a Black man this time.  It was a mix and match setup of who was who from the film with aspects of each seemingly through in, shook around, and dealt out by chance.

putting this together I also came across this news clip where they were on set with the production team:

 

Honorable Mention:
Wild, Wild West, CBS September 17, 1965 –April 11, 1969

I didn’t watch this when it was new, but CBS rebroadcast it on Saturdays in the late 80s and early 90s and after seeing an episode I tried not to miss it. It was a western with Jules Verne scifi in it. A Scifi western was the absolute best thing I could think of there being on television. Growing around horses and cowboys and westerns, all the Louis Lamour books my Papaw read and still reads it wasn’t this weird romantic other place then, it was us. I found out decades later that my great grandparents were part of at least one touring Wild West Show in the 1920s. The pictures of them in their costumes were all lost when my Aunt Naomi’s house burned. Jim also did trick shooting performances.

The pilot commercial in 1965 really sold it as James Bond in the West:

I also loved the animated intros that would show portions of the show that would match at climactic moments before going to a commercial. They were created by Michael Garrison Productions and Depatie-Freleng Enterprises, directed by Friz Freleng.

While pulling the info for the dates and cast for this post I learned that the man who portrayed Dr. Miguelito Loveless in this original series, Michael Dunn, is buried here in Norman, Oklahoma. He was born in Shattuck, OK and the family moved to Michigan when he was 2. He had a 178 IQ and was by all accounts a remarkbly wonderful person. When he died in London in 1973 he was buried in Ft. Lauderdale, FL near his parents’ retirement home. In 2007, a cousin had his body disinterred and moved to Sunset Memorial Park in Norman near where his parents were buried following their deaths in 1981 (father) and 1990 (mother).

Perhaps most fittingly it is the still from the Wild, Wild West episode “The Night of Miguelito’s Revenge” featuring Dunn’s Dr. Loveless character is the holder and preview image for the Wikipedia entry on “Weird West.”

With the move to cable and streaming there are now more options than ever to watch the “new westerns” but there was something about these all made under the circumstances of production budgets, general audience ratings, and competition with other programs in their time slots that really stood out. I’m well aware of the throngs of other TV westerns of which many books have been written, I’ve watched many of them in rerun Bonanza, The Rifleman, Rawhide, and  Gunsmoke to name some of the more well known. Gunsmoke was even parodied on Rocky and Bullwinkle twice, once with the moon men starring in Moonsmoke and another whole story arc where they move west after Bullwinkle’s “cowboy happy” attempts to outdraw the US Marshall during the intro to his favorite TV western program.

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