Classic Western TV shows – Watch classic western television online for free
Author: Zachariah Peale
Good vs Evil, black hats and white hats. The Western movie genre has left an indelible mark on American culture. In today’s world of conflicting values with many shades of grey, it is somehow comforting to recall those simpler times when good and bad were clearly defined, and truth and justice always saved the day. We can no longer watch Westerns like Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie everyday on television, but thanks to the magic of the internet, many of the old classic Western TV shows can be watched for free online.
During the 1950s and 1960s Westerns were a familiar site on television. They reached the zenith of their popularity in 1959 when 29 Western TV Shows aired during Primetime and eight of the top ten shows were Westerns. The most successful Westerns from this period were Wagon Train (9 seasons), Death Valley Days (12 seasons), Bonanza (14 seasons) and Gunsmoke. Running for 20 seasons, Gunsmoke becoming the longest running TV Western ever made. By the mid-1960s however, the traditional TV Western story of cowtowns, ranchers and lawmen had reached its saturation point. Even solid productions with a star-studded cast, such as The Big Valley (1961-1965), which featured Barbara Stanwyck, Lee Majors, Linda Evans, Peter Breck, had a hard time carving their own niche.
Westerns remained popular on television through the end of the 1970s. Newer shows ventured beyond the basic themes of cowboys & indians, ranchers, cattle towns and gunfighters and began to explore more true to life or unique storylines. The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969) was one of the first of these with its story of secret service agents in the Old West. Alias Smith and Jones premiered in 1971 and followed the adventures of a pair of con artists. Kung Fu (1972 – 1975), a Western with a martial arts and religious theme, followed the adventures of shaolin priest Caine (David Carradine) in the Old West. Little House on the Prairie, a family oriented Western, produced and directed by Bonanza star, Michael Landon, debuted in 1974 and ran for nine years until it ended in 1983. Nonetheless, with the exception of Little House on the Prairie, few of these latter day TV Westerns approached the level of success enjoyed by classic Westerns like Death Valley Days, Bonanza and Gunsmoke.
Although interest in Westerns fell off in the 1980s and 1990s, Western TV series and made for television mini-series continued to be produced. The Young Riders (1989-1992) told the story of a group of riders on the Pony Express. It frequently featured guest stars, including some of the original stars from the classic Western TV of the 60s. But the crowning achievement of western television only came about in 1989, with the release of the mini-series Lonesome Dove. Without a doubt the best western ever made for television and arguably one of the best Westerns of all time, the six and a half hour mini-series, based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel of the same name, tells the story of two former Texas rangers who make a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Lonesome Dove won seven Emmy awards as well as the Golden Globe award for Best Picture. Three follow-up movies were made, as well as two TV series: Lonesome Dove: The Series (1994), and Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years (1996). More recently, the critically acclaimed HBO western, Deadwood (2004-2006), raised eyebrows with its hard-talking realistic portrayal of life in the 1880s gold boomtown of Deadwood, North Dakota.
Today there are no first run Western TV shows, but many of the best from the last 60 years can be found on DVD and a few have even fallen into the Public Domain and can be watched for free on internet. Over 30 color episodes of Bonanza can be watched online for free and almost as many episodes of the Cisco Kid, also in color. A handul of episodes of the hit shows Death Valley Days, Wagon Train, The Rifleman and the Lone Ranger are also available streaming online. It seems as if there are few Hollywood directors who don’t want to try their hand at a Western, so Western fans can rest assured that western movies will continue to be made. And with the current trend of cinematic remakes of Westerns of the 50s and 60s we can cross our fingers and hope for a something that is finally a worthy successor to the most famous TV western of them all, Gunsmoke.