One of the digital TV channels fills it’s Sunday afternoon with old cowboy TV shows from the 40s through the 70s. Watching them, and seeing how they treat heroes, is a good reflection of the decline of Western Civilization.
First, The Lone Ranger, from 1949. You have to put aside the ridiculous English the Hollywood writers gave Jay Silverheel’s Tonto. Tonto is clearly the sidekick character, but within that limitation, he is a full partner with the Ranger – given important assignments and trusted to perform them alone. The Ranger is brave, absolutely honest, focused on stopping outlaw gangs (the terrorists of his day), and civil to people. He wears a white hat, all the bad guys wear black ones, plus he rides and fights without losing his hat. He can also shoot the gun out of the bad guys hand, frequently ending a gunfight with one shot. Everyone on the show is clearly good or clearly evil. While sometimes an individual character provides comic relief, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are serious.
Then we move on to the late 1950s and see Roy Rogers. Roy wears a hat that shows up dingy gray on the black and white TV of the day. He doesn’t fight so well, gets caught a lot, and has to depend on his wife Dale Evans (with her absolutely fabulous voice), his horse Trigger, his dog Bullet, and the comedy team of Pat Brady and Nellybelle (a WWII Jeep) to rescue him. Roy misses a lot when he shoots, as does the rest of his gang. Roy is much softer than the Lone Ranger, but the difference between good and evil is pretty clear. The final segment is always a clown section in which Pat and Nellybelle pull some kind of hijinks.
In the 1960s, we have Bonanza. It’s the story of the relatively good Cartwright family, good but conflicted side characters, and bad guys who have reasons for their crimes. It’s touchy-feely in the old West. For instance, yesterday’s show. Hoss Cartwright talks an old scout into guiding a cavalry unit across the desert. In order to live, they have to be able to find watering holes and in this day before GPS, that could be difficult. A bad buy wants to stop the cavalry, and plans to do so by stranding them in the desert. It turns out that the old scout is also an old drunk with the shakes and a lot of insecurity. This episode becomes the touching tale of Hoss showing the old scout trust and respect and encouraging him to find the watering holes. In the first heart-warming moment, the cavalry is ready to turn back in defeat, when they hear three shots – the signal that the old drunk has found the first watering hole. Which, of course has been poisoned by the bad guys. Eventually they make their way to the one good watering hole and have a shootout with the bad guys. The old scout creates a ruse that helps turn the tide of battle, thus making everyone feel good because he has redeemed himself. Other episodes dealt with equally compelling social issues.
By the 1970s, the clown foreshadowed by Pat Brady became the star in Dusty’s Trail. This show wasn’t widely syndicated, but it starred Bob Denver as Dusty, the number two guy on a wagon train – a wagon train that’s lost because he screwed up something that’s never defined. The cast included a wagonmaster/leader, a rich banker and his wife, a dance hall girl, a smart guy who could fix things, and another beautiful woman. Sound familiar? That’s right, it’s Gilligan’s Island set in a wagon train. In this show, the clown is the star. Dusty can’t shoot, can’t keep his hat on his head, screws up everything he comes near, and never shows any interest in the luscious Jeannine Riley.
Over four decades, the cowboy descended from a noble crimefighter, protector of women, children and innocents everywhere, to an incompetent clown, a laughingstock. I think in many ways, the shows reflect the way America thought of itself over the period.
And now we have Jack Bauer.