With end of 'Young Riders,' TV westerns fade out again


Bad news, pardner. Now that the trail dust has settled on the network announcements of their fall television schedules, one of TV's oldest genres, the western, seems once again to have ridden off into the sunset.

"The Young Riders" makes a last stand, with a few remaining fresh episodes of the ABC series now airing at 8 p.m. Thursdays (Channel 13). But the show was actually canceled earlier this spring, following the disappearance from CBS of "Guns of Paradise" (previously just "Paradise").

Yep. Save for movies and cable and broadcast reruns (such as a weekend "Gunsmoke" marathon on WNUV, Channel 54; see below), we'll have no more regular oaters, sagebrush sagas, horse operas, cowboy corrals, or six-gun showdowns.

"It really seems kind of sad," says Sharon Rhode, president of Viewers Voice Inc., a Wisconsin-based advocacy organization that earlier mounted a vain effort to save "Guns of Paradise," which starred Lee Horsely.

"I think there's a place on network television for westerns," says Dorothy Swanson, president of Viewers for Quality Television, a Virginia-based organization. "I think somebody can still do a quality western . . . but I imagine it will be a while now before we see one."

She says "The Young Riders" had a measureable following among VQT members, although it never ranked as one of the organization's "Fully Endorsed" shows.

And she adds that both "The Young Riders" and "Guns of Paradise" may have suffered in the ratings by weekend time slots, when viewership is reduced and, especially, younger viewers are not watching TV.

"There sure are enough people out there unhappy that their westerns aren't on," says Ms. Rhode of Viewer's Voice.

Actually, however, "The Young Riders" lasted longer than many might have imagined.

Introduced in the fall of 1989, it seemed a sacrificial show to NBC's hot "Cheers," at 9 p.m. Thursdays. But it was surprisingly renewed for a second season and moved to Saturdays, where it did well in the ratings.

Seen by many as a bald rip-off of the hit film "Young Guns," the show features young actors portraying Pony Express riders, and some of the characters were obviously soon to become more famous in western lore. We have Billy Cody (Stephen Baldwin) and Jimmy Hickok (Josh Brolin), for example, presumably to grow up as Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok.

MR. DILLON RETURNS -- TV's longest-running prime-time dramatic series was a western, of course, the continuing saga of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) known as "Gunsmoke."

And beginning at noon Sunday, Channel 54 has scheduled an eight-episode screening of repeats of the old series.

"Gunsmoke" actually began as a radio series in 1952, with William Conrad (now on "Jake and the Fatman") as the taciturn marshal.

When it moved to TV in 1955, the producers sought John Wayne, who turned it down (according to Alex McNeil's "Total Television"). Arness was eventually cast on the strength of several movie parts, most notably the ominous title character of "The Thing" in 1950.

Coincidentally, Arness' real-life brother, Peter Graves, also debuted in a starring series role that season, as the owner of "Fury" in the modern-day western. (Graves later starred in "Mission Impossible," and can be seen regularly as host of the Arts & Entertainment cable network's "Biography" series).

Most western buffs also know that for three seasons (1962-65), among the Dodge City regulars of Chester (Dennis Weaver, in early seasons), Doc (Milburn Stone), Kitty (Amanda Blake) and Festus (Ken Curtis) was also blacksmith Quint -- played by Burt Reynolds, now starring in CBS' "Evening Shade."

"Gunsmoke" ran regularly through the 1974-75 season. And recently, Arness has returned to the role in a trio of revival movies. (The most recent was "Gunsmoke III: To the Last Man," on CBS in January.)

Also on The Weekend Watch:

RERUN RELIEF -- Amid the post-"sweeps" assault of repeats, the CBS series "The Human Factor" (at 10 tonight, Channel 11) at least offers some fresh fare, even if it also rehashes another of TV's oldest genres. Tonight the hospital drama starring John Mahoney as a training physician features a medical student (Loryn Locklin) reporting a possible child abuse case, while Joe Murphy (Matt Ryan) tries to persuade a boxer who may have a serious illness to give up fighting. And believe it or not, a couple of new series make their premieres on Saturday. They include: "Julie," at 8:30 p.m. on ABC (Channel 13), with Julie Andrews as a network TV variety show host who moves to Sioux City, Iowa, to marry physician James Farentino; and "Vinnie and Bobby" on Fox (Channel 45), with Matt LeBlanc and Robert Torti as "two working class guys trying to make it in a world that doesn't always conform to their unusual way of thinking." The production is from the makers of the Fox hit "Married . . . With Children."

AWARDS ON THE AIR -- Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington serve as hosts of "The Fifth Annual Essence Awards" also airing Friday on Channel 11. The fashion magazine awards honor notable black women, who this year include poet Maya Angelou and performers Debbie Allen and Gladys Knight.

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