Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Go west, young critic

Back in 2009, the Western Writers of America composed a list of what its members felt to be the Top 50 boob tube oaters, splitting the tally into two separate countdowns—one for miniseries, and the other for regular shows.  In fact, I composed a post about that very list that expressed how pleased I was with the choices even though I had a tiny nitpick or two.  (I apologize for leaving out the miniseries list; I focused mainly on the other.)

A writer named Roger Catlin over at Salon.com has put together a list that he calls “TV’s greatest westerns” in one of those slide shows that used to be the specialty of the site’s former TV critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, before he went traipsing off to work for New York Magazine.  I wish Matt nothing but the best, but I also wish he’d reconsider coming back to Salon because despite my tendency to disagree with some of the pieces he put together for them in the past he never came up with anything as mind-boggling asinine as Catlin’s slide show.  Here’s his list of (my emphasis added) TV’s greatest westerns:

 1. Gunsmoke
 2. Deadwood
 3. Lonesome Dove (miniseries)
 4. The Big Valley
 5. McCloud
 6. Firefly
 7. The Wild Wild West
 8. Rawhide
 9. Wanted: Dead or Alive
10. Have Gun – Will Travel

If you haven’t already burst a blood vessel in your brain, you’re probably thinking (as I did) right now—what for the love of Shiloh is Firefly doing on this list?  Firefly was a short-lived science-fiction series that came and went in 2002, the creation of writer-director-producer Joss Whedon, who was also responsible for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The show attracted a significant fanboy (and fangirl, judging by some of my Facebook friends) element to live on despite its brief run in the form of a 2005 feature film, Serenity, and a myriad number of comic books, role-playing games, fan fiction, etc.  Catlin writes:

Joss Whedon’s first series after “Buffy” and its spinoffs was this fanciful futuristic space show that he quite explicitly described as a western. That could be seen too in the adventures of the spaceship, led like so many cowboy series, by a pair of soldiers from the recent Civil War (in this case the Unification War,) in which planets banded together to resist the controlling Alliance.

So the show was, in essence, an evocation of Western elements.  Fine and dandy.  But that doesn’t make it a western.  My Facebook compadre Archie Waugh points out that if that is the case, Star Trek would go on this list ahead of Firefly—creator Gene Roddenberry (who cut his teeth writing many an episode for Have Gun – Will Travel) sold that series as “Wagon Train to the stars.”  (Archie also argues that any number of shows—The Rifleman, Kung Fu, Alias Smith and Jones—would be better choices, which I heartily concur.)

The show he lists at #5, McCloud, also contained western elements—cowboy cop, horse, etc.—but it, too, is not a western…it’s a cop show.  I even have a problem with The Wild Wild West ranking so high on this list (and I’m a huge fan of the show) because it’s more of a spy show than western…but at least it takes place in the period in which we generally associate westerns.

Any “greatest TV westerns” list that doesn’t include Bonanza (even though I’m not a fan, it’s still an essential western) or Maverickhe left off Maverick, ferchrissake!—isn’t worth the bandwidth he used to stick this up on the Internets.  I don’t begrudge anyone tallying up such a list, you understand—Catlin puts Wanted: Dead or Alive in his Top 10 and while I think Wanted is a good western I’d hardly call it a great western.  (I think Catlin included it just so he could make a Bon Jovi joke.)  But he would have been a hell of a lot better off if this had been titled “My Favorite TV Westerns.”

At least he got the #1 oater right.  And Brother Edward Copeland can “enter his house justified” that Deadwood is finally getting a little respect.


Rich said...

Why are westerns called oaters?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

From TheFreeDictionary.com:

oat·er (tr)
n. Slang
A movie about frontier or cowboy life; a western.
[From the prominence of horses, known for their taste for oats, in such films.]

KimWilson said...

I'm not a big western fan, but even i know Bonanza should have gotten more respect.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I'm not a big western fan, but even i know Bonanza should have gotten more respect.

Kim, my theory is that the author probably thought: "Okay, I mentioned The Big Valley already...I really don't need to go back to the well with Bonanza." I'm on the record as preferring Valley to the Ponderosa clan but I just don't understand how you could leave them off the list--the show was on the air for 14 seasons, that should at least count for something.

Mercurie said...

I would not have included McCloud and Firefly myself. Really, while both draw inspiration from Westerns, one is a mystery series and one is a sci-fi show. I do love both though! I would have also ranked Have Gun-Will Travel much higher (at number one, actually). And I must agree--any list that doesn't include Bonanza or Maverick isn't worth the bandwidth it uses!

Laura said...

You know what I think of any list that leaves MAVERICK off a Top 10 Westerns list, LOL!

I also would put the lesser-known but more authentic HIGH CHAPPARAL on any list ahead of BIG VALLEY...and he includes McCLOUD (?!) and not THE VIRGINIAN? Riiiight.

Well, lists are always fun to look at, even if they're a bit crazy-making!

Best wishes,

+40 teenage werewolf said...

‘Firefly’ belongs on this list. It was about the same themes as westerns. 'Star Trek', though conceived in a western like format, think 'Wagon Train', is actually about empire building. Not about individuals making their way, or on the run from the law, in a post Civil War Frontier. Shows I would compare Firefly to would be 'Rawhide', 'Sugarfoot', 'The Rebel', 'Maverick', and 'Riverboat'. Also, there were horses! They carried guns that looked were like Colts, and Winchesters in 'western style' holsters. And the captain held up his pants with suspenders! Not a traditional western. But, neither was ‘My Pal Trigger’ or ‘The Wild Bunch’. Now, why is ‘Justified’ not on the list?
Finally, ‘oaters’ is also a pun. Referring to both the food for the horses and the smell.

VP81955 said...

He probably thought adding "Firefly" would draw some Whedonesque fanboy/girl traffic the entry wouldn't see otherwise. But even had it been placed at #10, it doesn't deserve to on a list of westerns -- because it isn't set, or take place in, the traditional western milieu. (Do you understand that, Whedonites?) Somewhere, Norman Macdonnell is grumbling, if only for aesthetics' sake.

Hal said...

That list is atrocious. No MAVERICK as you mention, but also no BONANZA (BIG VALLEY was very derivative of it though), no RIFLEMAN, no WAGON TRAIN...and of course, I'd put F TROOP on there as the greatest of all TV western comedies.

Randy Johnson said...

I agree with everyone about the missing shows, though with BONANZA, I preferred the Adam years early n the show. It got a little-oh too much slapsitck with Hoss and Little Joe for my tastes.

Elisabeth said...

Okay, I'm glad it's not just me thinking there's something wrong with this list. My first impression was that they tried to sample a little of everything rather than actually picking the best. Personally I think The Virginian and Wagon Train were both better than Bonanza, but I'd say Bonanza deserves a spot on that list much more than The Big Valley. I actually think The Big Valley was included solely for its merit in having female characters!

Stacia said...

All lists are great big arm-wavy LOOK AT ME HAVING AN OPINION attention-getting ploys. ALL of them.

That said, Robocop is a western.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Randy put in his two cents:

though with BONANZA, I preferred the Adam years early n the show.

Speaking as someone who'll watch the show only if I can't find anything good on, I heartily concur with this. Adam was like the Ricky Nelson or Bud Anderson of the program, the true rebel of the family.

And Elizabeth rapped the lectern for attention:

I actually think The Big Valley was included solely for its merit in having female characters!

I've watched a few Valley reruns on Me-TV in the afternoons, and I've been sort of surprised at how well it holds up--better than I remembered at the time. The female characters are a plus (which is why I also, like Laura, prefer The High Chaparral to Bonanza) but I think the interesting family dynamics of the Barkleys is what intrigues me. You have the bastard child angle in Heath, naturally, but the other thing I've noticed (and didn't at the time) was that Nick Barkley could be a real wanker when he set his mind to it.

Booksteve said...

Let's face it, this is a flat out stupid list...and I say that after years of calling McCloud one of my all-time favorite series. Just because it has a cowboy, doesn't make it a western. The obvious missing possibilities are Bonanza, The Virginian, Wagon Train and Maverick (of which I've been watching many episodes of these past few weeks). There was a reason these are all classics and that was the writing that was miles ahead of most TV westerns.

That said, there were scores of other well-done shows like Bat Masterson, The Rifleman, Lawman, Laredo and yes, Alias Smith and Jones, all of which deserve a space before--as enjoyable as it may be--Firefly, no matter HOW one rationalizes it!

It's a stupid list.