Gunsmoke: Season 6 Volume 2
Currently it is quite an achievement for a television series to celebrate the production of is one hundredth episode. To reach that milestone a show has to survive significantly more than the two or three seasons that typically denote the lifespan of a series. Only three managed to make it to the two decade mark; ‘Law & Order (prime)’, ‘The Simpsons’ and Gunsmoke’. The first changed their cast on a fairly regular basis, the second is animated but the third truly has earned a unique position in the annals of television history. It retained the same central cast of characters employing the same group of actors. There were, of course modifications in the second supporting cast but the main group remained intact for all of its astonishing 635 episodes. . This is unprecedented. Twenty years in the same job is difficult enough for ‘regular’ people but in the entertainment industry it is close to miraculous. As remarkable as this remains you need to keep in mind that prior to its twenty year run on television ‘Gunsmoke ’ had already been a highly popular radio program with an additional nine seasons to its unprecedented reign placing it firmly in the Parthenon of iconic cultural influences. The character of U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon has become the iconic symbol of justice in the American old west. On the radio the deeply resonating voice of actor/director William Conrad but although perfect for the radio show and a subsequent successful but he has a man of considerable girth and bulk he was replaced by the actor James Arness, a studio decsion I’m quite certain was a relief for the horses charged with carrying the character through each episode. The series began in a time when movies and television when the western was enjoying one of its many surges in popularity. Virtually every boy in the nation owned a holster and toy six shooter to accompany his cowboy hat and plastic badge. The western was one of the most well defined genres around with the tropes and archetypes easily identifiable; heroes in their white hats opposing the evil deeds of the black hatted villains. At least that was how it was until ‘Gunsmoke’ burst on the scene.
The setting for the series was the traditional American Old West, specifically the established pioneer tow of Dodge City, Kansas. The steadfast bastion of law and order was U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness) frequently assisted by his loyal deputy Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver). He was one of the first regular characters on a television series with a disability, a noticeable limp. Also always there was ‘Doc’ (Milburn Stone), a physician always on hand to dig a stray bullet out of the Marshall or pronounce somebody dead. While this is de rigueur for the western doctor of the genre ‘Gunsmoke’ represented a major departure from the trope. The third member of the primary cadre is Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) owner of the town’s drinking spot, The Long Branch salon. After all back in that time there wasn’t a wide selection of career paths for women and a teacher would be far too limiting for the writers. As the proprietress of a saloon Miss Kitty’s establishment could serve as an intersection for a broad range of characters.
In a time when westerns were ‘shoot-em up’ action faire targeted to all ages in the family the producers of ‘Gunsmoke’ decided to make a bold and radical change in direction. Although action was still a vital component of the show it was far from its dominant driving force. ‘This show became one of the most innovative changes in an American traditional, original genre. This series was akin to another television staple, the crime drama. The producers here took this popular dramatic format altering its local to this pivotal time in the history of our nation. This helped to elevate the western, especially on television, into a medium for relating more mature stories. The usual cowboys versus Indians were largely abandoned in favor of depicting Native American in a humanistic, far more sympatric figure. They moved on from a caricature to finely constructed individuals. This can be said about most of the western stereotypes as depicted here; the writers instilled a pathos rarely seen in this type of entertainment. The increased majority level seen here was. Of course, nothing like what we get now with cable or even the broadcast networks can show but in the fifties and sixties is on the verge of being controversial. CBS had to carry the show for the first few years of its run as many regular sponsors were hesitant to have their commercials aired on this series.
The majority of the episodic story lines reflected this trend of exploring dramatic themes. In one episode a little girl is orphaned when the cabin she shared with her parent caught fire. She becomes instantly infatuated with the Marshall leaving Dillon in a rather awkward situation. A similar circumstance of unwanted attention develops when Minnie, a Calamity Jane type frontier woman, sets her eyes on Doc. Even Chester gets involved in misguided affection when a young woman passing through doge gets him into unexpected trouble. Increasing the intensity of this story arc was the abuse the girl endured had a component of incest, a subject that is still difficult to tastefully present. Emotions run much deeper here than most were accustomed to in the network’s medical or legal dramas. When the Marshal is too meticulous investigating a murder at poker game a man wants to take vengeance in his own hands. Vigilantism is a common issue as demonstrated by young woman who is eager to kill her father’s murderer. Moral ambiguity is fairly abundant when Dillon is accused of murder of a man he recently evicted from the Long Branch. The man was humiliated and when is discovered dead fingers point at Matt. Main characters were always getting shot keeping Doc quiet busy. During one of many disagreements taking place in the saloon degrades into a shootout Miss Kitty is seriously injured leaving everyone in a prayerful frame of mind. Western like this is able to infuse a fallen woman, actually a river boat girl, as the protagonist. One townsman is shocked to discover that his wife once plied that profession prior to their marriage.
In this set you will either be introduced to a piece of television history or get reacquainted with a show with incredible quality and historical value. This was the last season featuring the half hour format and ranked number one in the ratings. After this the series was expanded to an hour and started to slide off the top spot.