The Greatest Western TV Shows

When it comes to westerns in entertainment, most people think of the cinema and big screen icons like: John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Tom Mix, Lee Van Cleef, Ward Bond and others. But the western has been just a big of a staple on the small screen as well. Since the television became a staple of American entertainment, westerns have been a part of it. This is a genre of television that continues to this day.

Gunsmoke: While it shared the airwaves with many other westerns during its twenty year run, Gunsmoke distinguished itself by being made for a mature adult audience. In Dodge City the law rests squarely on the shoulders of Marshall Matt Dillon, played by James Arness in a record-making 635 episodes. Along with Marshall Dillon was his sidekick Chester, later Festus, Doc and the saloon owning madam Miss Kitty. At its peak, Gunsmoke was easily one of the best written shows on television with a focus on realistic and gritty character-driven storylines.

Bonanza: With it’s instantly recognizable opening, Bonanza is a television institution through and through. A little outside of town is the famed Ponderosa, a ranch run by patriarch Ben Cartwright and his sons: Adam, Little Joe, and of course Hoss, with his nephew Will coming later on. For 14 seasons, viewers followed the Cartwright family through times that were equally dramatic and heartbreaking. In moves ahead of its time Bonanza was unafraid to tackle modern issues through the lens of Old West storytelling. While the show ended with the Rural Purge, reruns and TV movies have cemented the show’s place in pop culture.

Yellowstone: One of the biggest shows currently on TV, features Kevin Costner as a modern day wealthy and ruthless cattle baron. In Montana, John Dutton III is the owner of the state’s largest ranch which has been in his family for generations. As he holds onto his wealth in power his three children all have their own agendas and they do not care if that clashes with his own strong will. As if that is not enough, Dutton has no shortage of outside forces trying to bring him down as well. With no shortage drama Yellowstone‘s success has paved the way for prequels telling the story of the Dutton clan.

Justified: Based on a short story from the legendary Elmore Leonard, Justified had no problem showing western tropes can still work in a modern era. Following in the footsteps of so many other characters of the genre, Raylan Givens is the top lawman in his rural community. This is an archetype quite familiar to viewers, but Timothy Olyphant gave a fresh and modern spin to things. While his Kentucky home may be small, there is plenty of action to keep him busy, including the acts of a scene-stealing Walter Goggins as the crusading Boyd Crowder. A hit with critics and fans alike, the popularity of Justified has led to the upcoming sequel Justified: City Primeval.

Hell on Wheels: During the 1860’s the two sides of this country drew closer with the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. Despite the end product being a monument to human achievement, the work building it was harsh at bloody. Seeing chance of revenge on the soldier who murdered his wife during the Civil War, former Confederate Cullen takes on a job as a railwayman. However, he thrives in this world and rises up the ranks of the Transcontinental Railroad. With a rich cast featuring fan favorites like: Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, and Common, Hell on Wheels fit perfectly amid the other shows during AMC’s peak of original television.

The Rifleman: While he now has fandom among cult film fanatics thanks to Tourist Trap, athlete turned actor Chuck Connors, initially found fame as Lucas McCain. Following the Civil War and the loss of his wife, Lucas and his son Mark takes up life as a rancher in North Fork. As a man who knows who he is and what is values are, this single father often finds himself having to step up and make a stand with his trademark rapid fire Winchester. In a genre usually associated with grit and violence, having a wholesome family-man protagonist does serve as a nice change of pace.

Deadwood: Despite a short, but acclaimed run, this show most credited with proving westerns could still work on contemporary TV. What set Deadwood apart from other westerns on the airwaves is its roots in the real location of Deadwood, South Dakota at the end of the Civil War. Leading the ensemble were Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane portraying Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen. At the center of life in Deadwood is the possibility of gold and fortune. Only lasting 36 episodes, Deadwood racked up no shortage of gold during this time and was even given a film to wrap things up.

Wanted: Dead of Alive: Before becoming the personification of cool on the big screen, Steve McQueen was bounty hunter Josh Randall. A veteran of the Civil War, Randall roams the west with his iconic Winchester “Mare’s Leg” to hunt dangerous fugitives. While this is a compelling premise as it is, what sets Josh Randall apart from so many other Western hero archetypes is the personal investment he makes in those he encounters along his adventures. While Wanted only lasted three seasons, it made a massive impact on the genre that continues to leave an influence.