Judge Clark Douglas is a pioneer of nothing.
Our reviews of Pioneers Of Television (published January 23rd, 2008), Pioneers Of Television: Crime Dramas (published March 5th, 2011), Pioneers Of Television: Local Kids' TV (published April 10th, 2011), and Pioneers Of Television: Science Fiction (published February 18th, 2011) are also available.
"It was a lot of work, but we had fun."
There are few things television loves quite so much as paying tribute to itself, and in that spirit PBS created a series of Pioneers of Television specials. These hour-long installments tackle the ambitious goal of summarizing the history of an entire genre within a very short period of time. While Pioneers of Television: Westerns doesn't exactly succeed in terms of explaining the astonishing success of the western genre on the small screen, it does provide a charming look at a handful of the more important programs. The special devotes a few minutes to each of the following shows:
Maverick: Did you know that James Garner is nice? Really, really, really nice. He's just the nicest guy and people really liked working with him. He was different than all of the other television cowboys of the era, because he smiled. James Garner sure is nice.
The Rifleman: When Sam Peckinpah ran the show during the first season, it was one of the most violent shows on television. Peckinpah's love of violence really freaked people out, it seems. After he left, the violence remained but a contrasting element of tenderness was added; elevating the show to another level emotionally.
Bonanza: The manliest show on television, because there were no women allowed. When women did appear on the show, they were usually killed pretty quickly. Good times. Particular praise is thrown in the direction of Michael Landon, who used the series to launch his career as a writer and director.
The Big Valley: In contrast to Bonanza, women thrived on this program. Barbara Stanwyck played a strong leader in a time when there were very few interesting parts for females on television.
The Wild, Wild West: There were some odd gadgets and stuff, but this segment spends most of its time talking about how incredibly muscular and tough Robert Conrad was.
Gunsmoke: This show lasted for a very long time and was very popular, which this segment notes repeatedly. There is one rather interesting anecdote: the show was kept on television due to a speech Senator Robert Byrd made to congress. It seems the show was Byrd's favorite.
Davy Crockett: One of the biggest merchandising successes in television, allowing Disney to raise enough money to build Disney Land and causing children everywhere to buy coonskin caps.
Daniel Boone: Just like Davy Crockett, except less of a merchandising success and perhaps a slightly better show. The show did bold things like recognizing that black people and racism existed. Also, everyone loves Fess Parker and thinks he's the nicest person in the world.
The High Chaparral: A show noteworthy for featuring a minority as a lead character. The show uses this segment to soapbox about how morally superior the western was in terms of fighting social prejudice and battling stereotypes. It could be argued that sci-fi did a whole lot more in this regard (westerns promoted far more negative stereotypes than they fought, particularly in terms of their depiction of native Americans—an issue never touched on in this special).
The special ends with a montage of notable western players that haven't been mentioned at any other point in the special, including Clint Eastwood, Guy Williams, Burt Reynolds, Clayton Moore, Richard Boone, and others.
The DVD transfer is quite strong, benefiting from excellent detail throughout. Most of the archival clips used look pretty good, though they have been reformatted to 1.78:1 for the purposes of this special. I'm okay with that in this particular context. Audio is also strong, with "sound-alike" themes being employed as background music. For the most part, this is a talking-heads piece. There are no extras included on the disc.
While it's fun to catch up with participants like James Garner, Ernest Borgnine, Fess Parker, and others, Pioneers of Television: Westerns is pretty lightweight and insubstantial as a documentary. The only significant argument it makes is that westerns were popular once and did a lot to promote civil rights; the first point is obvious and the second is more than a little suspect. It's something diverting to watch if you catch it on television, but I can't recommend picking up the DVD.
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