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TV Westerns Prove The West Is Still Fun

Oct 17, 2012
Originally published on October 17, 2012 8:31 am

From the first five minutes of Vegas, there's no mistaking its classic Western heritage — they even have Stetson-wearing heroes wrangling a herd of cattle on horseback.

The year is 1960, and nail-tough rancher Ralph Lamb has been talked into serving as the top cop in Las Vegas. Lamb's only problem: He's taking over just as the mob is trying to turn Vegas from a sleepy ranch town into the world's grown-up playground.

In Vegas, the white hats just want to run their ranches, while the black hats fight over money, gambling and power.

I was raised on Clint Eastwood cowboy movies, so I love Westerns. They're great canvases for exploring big ideas about life and society.

And Vegas follows that tradition. It explores everything from the perils of urban vice to the spiritual cost of modern life. Along the way, it stretches out CBS' procedural crime formula with Mad Men-era retro cool and a hint of mob drama.

In fact, Vegas is a much better Western than another show that's actually set in the Old West. AMC's gritty Hell on Wheels is named for the portable town that workers used when they were building the transcontinental railway after the Civil War.

Hell on Wheels is a historically accurate old-school Western, complete with saloon fights, attacks from the Sioux Nation tribes, and a laconic gunslinger. But this series isn't really about anything, besides putting particularly cool antiheroes in precisely dirtied-up Western settings.

In fact, my favorite TV Western of the year takes place right in the present day: A&E's Longmire.

Walt Longmire is a modern-day sheriff in Wyoming, a character straight from the novels of crime writer Craig Johnson.

Longmire is an old-school lawman who almost gave up on life when his wife was killed. But over the course of the first season, he's learned to reclaim his place in an increasingly modern world.

This stuff is what makes great Westerns really cool — not flashy horse riding, six-gun shootouts or even an Old West setting. It's about the best combination of substance and style. And when it comes to entertainment, you can't get much cooler than that.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's a little early to call any of the new fall TV shows hits, but CBS' "Vegas" is looking good so far. It's the kind of crime procedural that CBS has built its reputation on. Think "CSI" or "Criminal Minds." It is also a Western. And TV critic Eric Deggans says it's part of a mini-Western revival.

ERIC DEGGANS: From the first five minutes of "Vegas," there's no mistaking its classic Western heritage. They even have Stetson-wearing heroes wrangling a herd of cattle on horseback.

The year is 1960, and nail-tough rancher Ralph Lamb has been talked into serving as the top cop in Las Vegas. Lamb's only problem: he's taking over just as the mob is trying to turn Vegas from a sleepy ranch town into the world's grown-up playground. Here, the town's slick district attorney goes to his assistant for the lowdown on Lamb.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEGAS")

CARRIE-ANNE MOSS: (as Katherine O'Connell) Our family ranches are next to each other. The Lambs have been out there since the Indian wars.

MICHAEL REILLY BURKE: (as Rich Reynolds) He's got a brother. What else?

MOSS: (as Katherine O'Connell) Son, Dixon. His wife passed away when he was in the war.

BURKE: (as Rich Reynolds) So what's his angle? Piece of a casino? Land rights on the strip?

MOSS: (as Katherine O'Connell) I think he just wants to run his ranch.

DEGGANS: In Vegas, the white hats just want to run their ranch. The black hats fight over money, gambling and power.

I was raised on Clint Eastwood cowboy movies, so I love Westerns. It's a great canvas for exploring big ideas about life and society. And "Vegas" follows that tradition. It explores everything from the perils of urban vice to the spiritual cost of modern life. Along the way, it stretches out CBS' procedural crime formula with "Mad Men"-era retro cool and a hint of mob drama.

In fact, "Vegas" is a much better Western than a show actually set in the Old West. AMC's gritty "Hell on Wheels" is named for the portable town that workers used when they were building the transcontinental railway after the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HELL ON WHEELS")

ANSON MOUNT: (as Cullen Bohannan) Steam engine blew.

COLM MEANEY: (as Thomas "Doc" Durant) Well, you should've been more careful then.

MOUNT: (as Cullen Bohannan) I ain't the one that wanted to cross the gorge in a week.

MEANEY: (as Thomas "Doc" Durant) Don't blame me for your failures, Bohannan. It's not my fault you blew the engine.

MOUNT: (as Cullen Bohannan) And it ain't my fault that you oversold our mileage at the board back East.

DEGGANS: "Hell on Wheels" is a historically accurate old-school Western, complete with saloon fights, attacks from the Sioux Nation Indian tribes and a laconic gunslinger. But the series isn't really about anything, besides putting particularly cool anti-heroes in precisely dirtied-up Western settings.

In fact, my favorite TV Western of the year takes place right in the present day: A&E's "Longmire." Walt Longmire is a modern-day sheriff in Wyoming, a character straight from the novels of crime writer Craig Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LONGMIRE")

ROBERT TAYLOR: (as Sheriff Longmire) Victim had a 12 gauge Mossberg. Book it into evidence. (Unintelligible) plates on the vehicles. Tell me who owns them and what guns they do and don't have registered. See if any of them know the Barnes boys, the victims or if they heard any gun shots.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) This is Wyoming. Everybody hears gunshots.

DEGGANS: Longmire is an old-school lawman who almost gave up on life when his wife was killed. But over the course of the first season, he's learned to reclaim his place in an increasingly modern world - mostly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LONGMIRE")

BAILEY CHASE: (As Branch Connally) Walt, if you got yourself a cell phone, you could've called me directly and told me what was up.

TAYLOR: (as Sheriff Longmire) I don't need a cell phone, Branch. I just need you to be part of the team.

DEGGANS: This stuff is what makes great Westerns really cool, not flashy horse riding, six-gun shootouts or even an Old West setting. It's about the best combination of substance and style. And when it comes to entertainment, it can't get much cooler than that.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.