It may seem strange to read a new review of a TV series that ran for 20 years and wrapped its last episode over 40 years ago. Nevertheless, I am offering a critique of the TV show Gunsmoke, which ran from 1956 to 1975. Perhaps you shouldn’t consider this a review as much as an homage to one of the greatest TV shows ever.
Not only does Gunsmoke allow me to enjoy the long lost western genre, but it is also full of gritty realism (tempered by production limitations of the time), and a morality that was part of the mainstream culture in the 1950’s but that is a breath of fresh air in today’s debauched society.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Matt Dillon is a US Marshall based in Dodge City, Kansas where there are plenty of bad guys to put in jail. He is supported by Chester, his often irresponsible deputy, and also enjoys the company of Doc Adams and Kitty Russell, who owns a popular local saloon. Dillon is one of the best around with a gun and faces down bandits, gun smugglers, gunfighters, crooked ranchers, and hosts of others. On the surface, the show can seem cliché as Dillon’s victims pile up after scenes that are sometimes cheesy. However, many of the shows deal with real problems resulting from the harshness of life on the plain in a very practical way. For instance, in one episode a rancher catches a man he thinks is a horse thief and along with another rancher decides to lynch him. In another, Dillon has to decide how to deal with a buffalo hunter that beats his wife. While these plots aren’t necessarily original, they certainly depict real problems that existed in the old west.
Not only do I find the show believable, I also find it refreshing to watch men and women in more traditional roles. The men treat ladies with kindness and chivalry, although sometimes admitting a lack of understanding of their ways. When action becomes necessary, even the male characters less prolific than Matt Dillon do not shy away from danger. They face problems head on because first and foremost they are men in a difficult environment and haven’t yet been feminized in the way most modern TV men have.
I also mentioned earlier that I like the morality that is portrayed on the show. There is no moral relativism here. Promiscuity is frowned upon. The Bible is referenced. You don’t have to feel embarrassed about watching this show with your kids. Of course, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a reflection of the morality in the old west. Like any show it represents the values of the time it was made, not the time in which it is portrayed. These are the values of the 1950’s, not the 1870’s.
The show is not perfect. It was at its best as a 30 minute show with sometimes trite dialog. The longer shows tend to be more cliché and campy than the shorter ones that tell a very simple story. It is difficult to produce 600 episodes of any show and not be repetitive at times. There are multiple storylines about corrupt ranchers chasing farmers off their land, gunman who want to make a name for themselves, and others. Matt Dillon is a larger-than-life character. Sometimes too large. No other protagonist in television has been shot so many times and lived. In 20 years he never met anyone he couldn’t outdraw or outsmart. The fact is no matter what the story, you knew before it started Matt Dillon would make the best of the situation.
That is part of the fun as well. This long-running is just a fun bit of escapism that will at times make you think. For best results, I recommend the early episodes.