Television: Miss Kitty's Litter


Late last year came news of the death of Amanda Blake, a.k.a. Miss Kitty of "Gunsmoke'"s venerable Longbranch Saloon. This passing, as was widely noted, marked not only that of an apparently beloved television actress but of a period of American television itself. "Gunsmoke," which ended its two-decade run in 1975, is still considered by many to have been the greatest—and most representative—of TV westerns.

There has certainly been nothing to replace it, for understandable reasons. The western fell into a kind of disrepute just as millions of Americans were reeling in horror at the realities of the Vietnam war and had not much stomach for shoot-'em-ups.

That may be changing. What they used to call oaters, like "Paradise," "Lonesome Dove," and now "The Young Riders," are with us again. And it may well be the Vietnam war film that has made this return possible. In the last several years, we've seen the emergence of an entire genre unto itself, what might be called the Vietnam "reconciliation" or "healing" film.

Far from glorifying war, films of this type—from The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now to Casualties of War and In Country—attempt to show it in all its horror, concentrating on the psychic as well as the physical mutilation war entails. While closer in spirit to antiwar films, they nevertheless have brought warfare in all its terrible beauty back to the big screen. And little screen, too: Prime-time television now offers similarly realistic (read: violent) dramas like "Tour of Duty" and "China Beach."

These shows, arguably antiwar as well, function in large part as sensitivity showcases, with good-looking, well-meaning young men and women in olive drab drawn together as bombs light up the night sky, broken bodies are rushed into makeshift hospitals, and life's lessons are learned. Bloodshed is back, the old pacifism making possible the new violence.

With its gun-totin' adolescents, ABC's "The Young Riders"—far closer in feeling to "Tour of Duty" than to "Rawhide"—appears to mark the return of the TV western, or at least its newest manifestation. (CBS's "Paradise," with its too-adorable moppets, is at best transitional, more closely resembling a Disney movie or after-school special than "Red River.") "The Young Riders" may well be the genuine article—or as genuine as today's television western is going to get.

Ty Miller, Stephen Baldwin, Josh Brolin, Travis Fine, Gregg Rainwater, and Yvonne Suhor star as Pony Express riders circa 1860, but they look suspiciously like the kids of "21 Jump Street" at a dude ranch. Under the tutelage of one Teaspoon Hunter (Anthony Zerbe doing his Strother Martin schtick), they are instructed to hold their fire, but circumstances don't always allow it.

In the pilot, they use state-of-the-art rifles to ambush some connivin' hoss thieves, for example, but exercise admirable restraint nonetheless. Faced with the chance to blast these no-goodniks to Kingdom Come, our heroes pass up the opportunity. Killing the thieves, they decide, would make them no better than rustlers themselves.

Instead, the Riders turn the rustlers over to the sheriff, so the prisoners can stage a jail break and come back hellbent on revenge, thereby setting up intriguing—nay, inevitable—plot complications. The jail break proves especially convenient because it allows the Kid (Miller) to blow his rotten-toothed, scarfaced tormentor's head off, anyway, in self-defense.

This action presents an opportunity for the Kid, who's a sensitive plant, to sulk a bit over the fact that he's killed a man and get introspective. Though not for long: "Don't be too rough on yourself," the sheriff tells him. "This is the West, son, and you gotta grow up fast if you're gonna grow up at all."

Growing up is what the "Young Riders" is about, apparently, and killing other human beings is an important part of the process. There's scarcely a moment in this series, in fact, when homicide is not either being committed or hinted at. Two of the Riders, we're to infer, will grow up to be legendary gunslingers: Baldwin's character is named Billy Cody. Brolin's is Jimmy Hickok.

Fortunately for his own development, the Kid gets another chance to kill only a few weeks later—again, thanks to an unnecessary plot contrivance. In this episode, when a runaway slave turns up at the bunkhouse and saves the Kid's horse from a burning barn, the Riders decide to protect the "colored man" from one Colonel Savage, a hard-assed state militiaman with a warrant for the slave's arrest.

After a couple of choice whippings and beatings, the tension begins to build: "We're outgunned," one of the Riders tells the others as the militia closes in. "They got long-barrelled Colts, hunting rifles, and plenty of shot." Rallying the well-armed townspeople to the cause, the Riders are able to force the militiamen to drop their guns, and the slave's safety is assured.

Here this episode could well have ended—except for the fact that nobody's been killed yet. So, inexplicably, the demented colonel unsheathes his sword and rides directly toward the slave. The Kid draws his pistol and—kablooey!—Colonel Savage writhes in the dust, justice done. And this time, the Kid, a Virginian who was initially reluctant to help the slave, doesn't sulk at all. He smiles, then shakes hands with the fugitive, who rides off for Canada to help other runaways flee to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Unlike the pilot, this episode justifies its bloodshed by putting it in the service of what are now (but were not then) almost universally unassailable social views—to wit, racial equality. To do this, of course, the show's creators had to imbue the Riders with ahistorical racial attitudes, but why not? This series is shot through, as it were, with a contemporary sensibility.

"The Young Riders," with its leathers and horseflesh, its scrub-pine landscapes and soft-focus sunsets, its portentous silences and pregnant pauses, is nothing but attitude: sulking, pouty, adolescent attitude, resembling in tone nothing so much as a designer-jeans commercial, as art imitates advertising.

Television critic Mark Crispin Miller has attributed the decline of the TV western to its "preconsumeristic milieu," suggesting that the horse opera offers too little opportunity to display new products for contemporary advertisers' purposes. That may no longer be true, since fewer and fewer television commercials themselves push products per se.

They're pitching attitude these days, attitude the advertisers hope the viewer will associate with an entire product line—sometimes identified only by name—and then incorporate into their "lifestyle." And as long as that's the case, the new TV western seems a perfect vehicle for advertisers. That, today, is almost enough to assure its return.

Alan Pell Crawford has written for The Nation, National Review, and Vogue