June/July 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 3
What does the only Western on television today have in common with the most popular TV Western ever?
“Gunsmoke,” which made its debut in 1955, is the longest-running dramatic series in television history. “Deadwood” debuted nearly 50 years later and is now in its third season, the only Western on TV. Broadcast on CBS, “Gunsmoke” was, for several seasons, the number-one-rated show; “Deadwood,” one of the most popular dramatic shows on cable TV, is on HBO. The exploits of Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a real-life peace officer in “Deadwood,” are viewed by a mere fraction of the audience that followed those of “Gunsmoke”’s Matt Dillon (James Arness), a composite of several famous Kansas lawmen.
“Gunsmoke” began the era of so-called adult Westerns and outlasted all of them; with its ferocious language and raw depiction of frontier sexuality, “Deadwood” has redefined the “adult” Western.
Both “Gunsmoke” and “Deadwood” utilized numerous directors, some of whom are famous for Western feature films. Sam Peckinpah, who would go on to make The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, piloted some of the first episodes of “Gunsmoke”; Walter Hill, a Peckinpah disciple and the director of Geronimo and the Jesse James film The Long Riders, made the first episode of “Deadwood.”
Both series are set in legendary frontier towns. Dodge City, Kansas, began as a rowdy camp for buffalo hunters and became the quintessential Western cattle-shipping center—“Queen of the Cowtowns,” as it was known in its glory days. Deadwood, South Dakota, was one of the West’s wildest gold-mining camps. Their heydays came at roughly the same time, from around 1876 to the end of the decade. Both, for a short period, were practically outside the realm of legal authority, Dodge because of the enormous influx of cowherds that often overwhelmed the local police force, Deadwood because it was, for a while, an illegal town built on Indian land beyond the reach of U.S. authority.
The most famous gunfighters and gamblers in the West swarmed to both towns. Wild Bill Hickok was murdered in Deadwood by an itinerant gambler, while both Wyatt Earp, who was also in Deadwood for a brief time, and Bat Masterson were peace officers in Dodge. Doc Holliday gambled in Dodge and also, according to some accounts, in Deadwood.
At first glance, the sanitized Dodge City of “Gunsmoke” lies light-years away from “Deadwood,” which almost seems in comparison like a circle in Dante’s Inferno. But a closer look shows they have much in common. “Gunsmoke” began as a radio series and was much earthier at its inception: Miss Kitty, the proprietor of the Long Branch Saloon (played on TV by Amanda Blake), was easily identified as a brothel owner, and Doc (Milburn Stone in the TV series) was a cynical alcoholic, much like Brad Dourif’s hard-boiled Doc Cochran on “Deadwood.” The Western historian Jeff Morey, historical adviser for the movie Tombstone and a frequent consultant for the History Channel, sees other connections: “Both series are about the evolution of moral chaos into order. We don’t remember ‘Gunsmoke’ that way because in the show’s later years, those issues were pretty much settled, but in its own day, and in its own way, ‘Gunsmoke’ was as bold as ‘Deadwood.’”
Morey sees another similarity: “Both ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘Deadwood’ are acclaimed because of their writing. For a show about the Old West to be authentic, it has to make clear that there was a hard-core Victorian morality struggling against the anarchy of vice and violence, and that is best expressed through the quality of the scripts. ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘Deadwood’ are probably the two best-written Westerns in the history of television.”