From the early silent films of the 1900s to the iconic classics of the mid-20th century, the Western has been a beloved genre for generations. However, in recent years, there has been a shift in the way Westerns are approached, with a new wave of revisionist productions gaining popularity. Shows such as Justified, Deadwood and Yellowstone are all examples of this trend, and their success can be attributed to a more mature and sophisticated TV audience. These are not simply rehashing old tropes but are instead subverting and critiquing the genre’s traditional conventions in order to appeal to a new generation of viewers.
These programmes challenge the romanticised and idealised view of the American West, instead presenting a grittier, more realistic, and nuanced portrayal of life on the frontier. The cowboys are not always the heroes, and the Indians are not always the villains. The revisionist Western is characterised by complex characters, morally ambiguous storylines, and a willingness to explore the darker aspects of human nature.
One reason for the rise of the revisionist Western is the changing tastes of the TV audience. As viewers become more sophisticated and discerning, so they demand shows that are more complex and challenging. This can be seen in the popularity of shows such as The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and The Last of Us, which all share a willingness to explore complex themes and challenge traditional storytelling conventions. These shows have raised the bar for what viewers expect from their TV shows, and the revisionist Western is perfectly suited to meet this demand.
Another reason for the revisionist Western’s success is its ability to appeal to a wide range of viewers. The genre’s traditional themes still resonate with audiences, but the revisionist Western’s willingness to explore complex characters and storylines also appeals to those looking for more sophisticated storytelling. The result is a genre that can appeal to both fans of the traditional Western and those looking for something new and different.
One show that exemplifies the revisionist Western trend is Justified. It follows the story of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant), who is sent back to his hometown in Kentucky to deal with the criminals he grew up with. The show’s portrayal of the criminal underworld in rural America is a far cry from the romanticised view of the West seen in classic Westerns. The show’s characters are complex and multi-dimensional, with no clear-cut heroes or villains. Its exploration of themes such as loyalty, justice, and redemption resonates with viewers, making it a critical and commercial success.
Another show that has been successful in the revisionist Western genre is Yellowstone. This follows the story of the Dutton family, who own the largest ranch in the United States. Its exploration of the modern West and the conflicts between ranchers, developers, and Native Americans has been praised for its realism and nuance. Yellowstone’s portrayal of the West as a place of conflict and tension is a departure from the traditional Western’s romanticised view of the frontier.
In addition to addressing social issues, modern Westerns also appeal to audiences because of their complex characters and storylines. These shows and films often feature morally ambiguous characters who are neither fully good nor fully evil. This nuance and complexity make the characters more relatable and interesting, and the storylines more compelling.
The critically acclaimed HBO series Deadwood is the perfect example. Set in a lawless South Dakota town in the 1870s. It explores the conflicts between the town’s residents and the lawless nature of the frontier. The show’s characters are complex and multi-dimensional, with no clear-cut heroes or villains. The show’s exploration of themes such as loyalty, justice, and redemption makes it both entertaining and thought-provoking.
In short, the modern Western is experiencing a resurgence in popularity because as tastes and attitudes towards stories have matured, demanding more than just romanticised pulp fiction, the Old West has served as a great framing device to explore much more socially relevant and sophisticated narratives, while still maintaining the genre’s traditional themes.
This is the first in a three part series. The second article, covering classic and revisionist Western on the page, will be published on this site on Tuesday.