You remember that amazing TV show that got cancelled after just a few episodes? The one from the respected TV writer who then went on to become a famous filmmaker? The show was sort of a Western … but different. It was edgy, smart, and even a little philosophical. The lead actor was particularly good—best role he ever played. But the show aired on Friday nights, got bad ratings, and was cancelled almost immediately. They only made about 13 episodes. You know the one I’m talking about, don’t you?
I doubt it.
Even though everything I just wrote could apply to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, the series I’m actually talking about is called The Westerner. Created by Sam Peckinpah and starring Brian Keith, the series barely lasted three months, but it remains one of the most interesting TV Westerns ever made.
Since his death, Sam Peckinpah’s critical reputation has been as erratic as his actual career—full of highs and lows. Regarded by some as a visionary maverick and by others as a misogynist exploiter of violence, his masterpiece, The Wild Bunch, remains the best example of the revisionist Western—far more substantive than the stylized Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns and far more stylized than the later Clint Eastwood-directed films like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven.
But before he became a filmmaker, Peckinpah wrote for popular television shows like Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. Eventually, he would join several other TV veterans like Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Sydney Pollack, and John Frankenheimer as part of a new generation of directors who pushed back against the bloated, big-studio spectacles and musicals of the ‘60s.
But that was the future. In 1960, he was still a frustrated TV writer who was itching to make a different kind of television show. The Westerner represents his last major attempt at helping the medium live up to its potential. It lasted three months.
The Westerner focuses on a cowboy drifter named Dave Blasingame played by Keith. Dave and a dog (not his dog mind you—just a dog) named Brown, move from place to place, with Dave picking up work along the way. He’s the Old West’s version of a temp worker, and in between jobs he mostly squanders his money in saloons. But as he drifts, he invariably stumbles into conflicts, many of which pose ethical and moral dilemmas. In that way, he’s a forerunner to Toshiro Mifune’s aimless ronin in Yojimbo and Eastwood’s Man with No Name. In the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, Dave lives free and uncommitted—almost pathologically so. He won’t even commit to the dog. He doesn’t own Brown; the dog just chooses to travel with him. And, if anything, Brown seems even less committed than Dave.
When the show debuted, Westerns saturated prime-time television. Even though there were only three networks, there were over 25 Westerns in prime time. Like most of them, The Westerner was a 30-minute drama, but that’s where most of the similarities end. Consider the opening credits. In an era where shows branded themselves with a catchy theme song, Peckinpah opted to eliminate it entirely. Bonanza might feature four horsemen apocalyptically bursting through the flames of a map, but each episode of The Westerner just … begins. At the end of each teaser, the title of the show and Brian Keith’s name simply appear, superimposed over the moving image. Everything else could wait for the end.
But what really makes The Westerner stand out is the tone and the moral vision. In the first episode, “Jeff,” Dave travels to a saloon in a far away town in order to find an old girlfriend and kill the man who is holding her. The man fancies himself a bare-knuckles boxer, so when Dave delivers an uppercut knee to the man’s face, the self-styled pugilist protests that Dave has broken the rules. Dave, however, never slows down, instead shouting, “It’s not a game!” while delivering another punch.
That particular moment lasts all of a half second, but the line, “It’s not a game!” could easily be the signature phrase of the whole series. Significantly, Brian Keith doesn’t deliver it as some sort of tough guy swagger; he shouts it—almost shrieks it—while throwing his punch. And with that, Peckinpah lays bare the inherent falseness of the popular conventions of an entire TV genre. The events in The Westerner aren’t a game. There aren’t any rules. Life is dangerous and violent, there is no code of the West, and the “good” guys are as likely to cheat as the “bad” because there really weren’t ever any good guys in the first place.
In fact, nothing in The Westerner gets deconstructed more thoroughly than the Western hero. While the idea of a drifter is a fairly familiar character type, what makes Dave unique is that he’s unpredictable in a very modern, Don Draper-ish way. He often doesn’t do what we expect from a TV character of the era, and even when he does—when he acts nobly—he generally rationalizes it in pragmatic terms.
Nowhere is this unpredictability more apparent than in the episode,“Treasure.” In the story, Dave finds a stash of gold coins stolen from the government years before. But before he can do anything with it, an old prospector happens by and, sensing that Dave has found some loot, decides to hang around. As an antagonist, this prospector is old, frustrated, and physically weak. In fact, he doesn’t even carry a gun—only a knife. He’s faced a lifetime of failure and frustration, but he’s clearly interested in the money. In most such stories, if the “hero” were to face a threat, that threat would be intimidating, dangerous, and cutthroat—the sort of character a young Bruce Dern or Warren Oates might’ve played. But the prospector is physically weaker than Dave and less well armed. When he finally attacks Dave in the night, our “hero” shoots him. It’s clearly self-defense, but there’s little about it that’s sympathetic.
And that’s just the beginning. Dave figures the stolen money is past the statute of limitations—not according to the law but according to his own code. So when word gets out that Dave has found the missing money, he holds the sheriff at knifepoint—the same knife he took from the old prospector—and rides out of town, heading towards Mexico.
The sequence would’ve been unthinkable for most television characters, but Dave doesn’t arrive with a fully formed moral code handed down by society or dramatic convention. He has to work things out for himself. That’s why, when he changes his mind and returns to town with the money, his decision actually means something. It’s a moral choice, but one he’s had to struggle with. So when he makes it, he’s not reinforcing the establishment or standing up for abstract concepts like law and order, nor is Peckinpah returning viewers to the status quo. Instead, Peckinpah puts both Dave and the law to the test, and when Dave returns, it’s only because he’s worked it out through his own conscience and the law just happens to dovetail with his newly expanded personal code.
These types of moral dilemmas continue to arise—most notably in my favorite episode, “Line Camp”—but the solutions are rarely tidy. Peckinpah uses The Westerner to interrogate morality, the law, civilization, and the entire Western genre. Not every episode is a jewel—Peckinpah’s occasional attempts at humor are very strained—but when it clicks, The Westerner is as interesting as anything in the genre.