TV Westerns are a riveting and action-filled genre that have captivated and entertained audiences for seven decades on the small screen.
TV Westerns are a riveting and action-filled genre that have captivated and entertained audiences for decades on the small screen. The fan-favorite style of storytelling has proven to be extremely popular and lucrative in Hollywood, with some of the entertainment industry’s finest performers headlining these thrilling and provocative programs, and some of them even becoming part of the greatest TV series of all time.
While the “Golden Age of the Western” occurred throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, with smash hits like Gunsmoke and Bonanza taking the world by storm, in recent years the genre has experienced a resurgence in prominence. Audiences can’t get enough of the resilient and fiery Dutton clan in Yellowstone, just like they were left stunned when the cult classic Joss Whedon juggernaut Firefly was tragically canceled. These are some of the best Westerns that television has to offer.
A great example of how Westerns can merge with horror and other genres, the 2016 series Wynonna Earp offered the enduring genre a supernatural twist by giving the titular heroine (Melanie Scorofono) the power to send reincarnated outlaws her famous lawman ancestor Wyatt Earp killed back to hell in order to keep peace within society.
The resilient and determined leading lady faces off against dangerous revenants seeking vengeance in her fictional hometown of Purgatory, joining forces with the mysterious government agency known as the Black Badge Division to battle against other deadly supernatural beings. With a great cast, including Tim Rozon of Schitt's Creek, Wynonna Earp was chosen by Variety as one of the best new shows of 2017, and went on to have a successful four season run before concluding in 2021.
Ethan Hawke won a Satellite Award for his riveting portrayal of abolitionist John Brown in the 2020 historical drama miniseries The Good Lord Bird, which follows the prominent figure's admirable efforts to end slavery as witnessed through the eyes of the fictional enslaved boy Henry "Onion" Shackleford.
The critically-lauded program was adapted from the James McBride novel of the same name and features Onion coming into contact with some of history's most celebrated historical heroes, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Ultimately, the drama recounts the events surrounding the famous Harper's Ferry raid of 1859. The miniseries earned nearly universal praise by critics, with the Independent UK calling it a "smart, starry treatment of serious historical events that manages to retain a sense of humour without losing heart or gravitas."
Chronicling the many high-profile crimes and investigations the fictional Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire becomes embroiled in, the 2012 modern Western crime drama Longmire stars Robert Taylor as the eponymous lawman as he works closely alongside confidante Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), who gives him insight into what goes on within the Indian reservation tribal police. The character of sheriff Longmire was created in order to pay homage to the legendary heroes of Westerns past and is a commanding and self-possessed person with a strong moral compass.
Longmire went on to become "the most-watched original series in A&E history, packing almost six million viewers" every episode. Upon being canceled by the network, was picked up by Netflix for three additional seasons where it finished its tenure in 2017.
The thrilling 2011 Western period drama Hell on Wheels touts an impressive ensemble cast including Anson Mount, Common, and Colm Meaney. The epic AMC show tells the gripping story of a former confederate soldier-turned-foreman for the Transcontinental Railroad, who seeks revenge against the Union soldiers responsible for his beloved wife and son's brutal murder during the American Civil War.
Mount had been a longtime fan of the epic genre and was amazed he was getting paid to help bring one to life, revealing to Collider, "When I was doing the pilot, I’d have flashbacks to the time I would climb this half-blown-over tree in my backyard, with a cowboy hat and a sheriff’s badge, and a little plastic six-shooter around my hip. I’ve been playing cowboys and Indians since I was six years old."
Joss Whedon created the 2002 cult classic space Western Firefly, which stars Nathan Fillion as the cunning and fearless leader Malcolm Reynolds, captain of the spacecraft Serenity that travels through the galaxy with its diverse renegade crew in search of better lives and opportunities.
Brilliantly blending elements of lively genres like Westerns and space operas, the series was created by Whedon after he read the historical novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Whedon stated that he set out to make it be "a Stagecoach kind of drama with a lot of people trying to figure out their lives in a bleak pioneer environment." Despite Firefly being criminally canceled after just one season, it has gone on to develop a passionate cult following, fanfare that led to the 2005 follow-up film Serenity.
Timothy Olyphant was sensational as the toughened Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the 2010 FX neo-Western smash hit Justified, which centers on the outlaw lawman as he is reassigned to his Kentucky hometown of Harlan to crack down on the criminal activity rampant in the area. His unique brand of justice causes tension with his bosses and also puts the thugs and dangerous men he hunts on edge, with his Wild West take on crime-fighting causing quite the stir down south.
Justified was a knockout with both audiences and critics during its six season run and won multiple Emmys and a Peabody Award, garnering immense praise for its stellar performances (especially Walton Goggins'), riveting storylines, and bold approach to the Western genre. A limited sequel series entitled Justified: City Primevalis set to premiere later this year with Olyphant returning as Givens.
Kevin Costner won a Golden Globe Award for his engrossing portrayal of the powerful Dutton family patriarch in the pop culture juggernaut Yellowstone. The series took the world by storm that centers on the fiesty ranching clan as they battle against forces attempting to infringe on their territory.
Featuring an exceptional cast including Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly and Cole Hauser, the electrifying neo-Western drama has been lauded throughout its five seasons thus far and its viewership continues to grow exponentially alongside its popularity, with the fifth season premiere attracting 12.1 million viewers. Yellowstone has also spawned numerous spin-offs like the prequels 1883 and 1923, with two additional shows in the works.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest television shows of all time, the 2004 HBO period drama Deadwood takes place in the South Dakota territory in 1876 as settlers flock to the mining town in hopes of striking it rich and making new lives for themselves. At the center of the establishment is headstrong Deadwood sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), who clashes with fellow resident and saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) as the warring men are on opposite sides of a moral compass.
Deadwood earned critical acclaim during its three season tenure and won an impressive eight Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. Though many felt the series was canceled too soon, Deadwood: The Movie premiered in 2019 with the original cast returning.
Adapted from the American radio program of the same name, the enduring and long-running 1955 Western drama Gunsmoke focuses on U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) as he attempts to keep law-and-order in the rough town of Dodge City, Kansas. The series focused on a wide array of foes, problems, and misadventures in the frontier settlement, and arguably laid the foundations for the antihero trop so often used today.
With the first episode introduced by John Wayne himself, the program became a massive ratings hit and remained on-air for two decades, with two made-for-TV movies also being released in 1987 and 1990. The program's two main leads Arness and Amanda Blake returned for the first reunion film. Gunsmoke was the longest-running primetime live-action television series for years, until Law & Order: Special Victims Unit surpassed it in 2019 with its 21st season. Historical importance and iconic influence aside, Gunsmoke is essentially just a gripping, character-driven drama with excellent episodic conflict.
Undeniably the most famous and celebrated TV Western to ever grace the small screen, the 1959 smash hit Bonanza follows the prominent Cartwright family and their many thrilling adventures on their Nevada homestead the Ponderosa Ranch in the 1860s. With unforgettable characters like Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe Cartwright, the series was massive triumph with audiences and critics and its titular theme song became an instantly distinguishable tune that fans couldn't get enough of. Bonanza has landed on countless lists of the greatest TV shows of all time, and was lauded for tackling then-taboo topics including racism, bigotry, and antisemitism, and was truly a trailblazing program during its phenomenal run.