Combining and Balancing Two Genres: The Wild Wild West (TV Showcase #9)

When I discussed “Little House on the Prairie”, I talked about the obsolescence of the Western genre. And what, pray tell, brought about this obsolescence? Why, the spy genre, of course. Indeed, shows like “Get Smart”,  “The Man From UNCLE”, “The Avengers”, and other such shows were the new, hip thing, and they were kicking Westerns off the screen fast. So how was a Western to survive? Well, there were two ways that I’ve seen exhibited. One is that the show would’ve had to have been on TV for twelve years or so and just get a bunch of adamant old folks behind it to keep it on the air (i.e., “Gunsmoke”). The other way is to combine the genres of Western and spy into one show. Enter “The Wild Wild West”.

“The Wild Wild West” (WWW for short) began in 1965 and ran for 104 episodes over four seasons, ending in 1969. The series was about Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon in the 1870s, who commuted throughout the West by way of secret train to stop all sorts of dastardly villains. The two agents had all sorts  of advanced gadgetry and things to help them in their work (and so did the villains more often than not). What made the show unique was its pristine balance between being a spy show and being a Western. But how did they accomplish this?

First of all, the balance between spy and Western was accomplished by the audience. The older generation was happy to see a new Western on the air, while the younger whippersnappers liked the cool spy element to the show. And indeed, it was quite a feat that WWW managed to pull it off, being that the show was set in the nineteenth century, and most of the gadgets were most obviously not in existence or even in the minds of most inventors during that day and age. However, those gadgets were just what was needed to give the show that balance; otherwise it would’ve just been a Western with the sheriff and deputy calling themselves spies; the audience liked the spy gadgets and therefore couldn’t just call it a Western through and through.

Another way the WWW managed to keep the balance was through the format of the show. Essentially, the show was a spy-driven plot in a Western setting. So Jim and Arte always advance the plot by finding out information that will lead them closer to either a spy, a green ring, a fugitive, or whoever they happen to be fighting that week. But in between the main plot advancements, there are gunfights, making out, horse-chasing, and some pretty spectacular hand-to-hand combat (for which Robert Conrad, who played West, did all of his own stunts for a good part of the show’s run). So the show was basically all-spy and all-Western. But there’s one more element that kept the show in balance.

The late 1960s wasn’t just a transition from Western to spy. It also began the age of scifi, which I would argue hasn’t stopped. As a result of this, many non-scifi shows (particularly sitcoms) would insert scifi elements to liven up the plot once in a while. The WWW did this and by doing so was able to relieve tension from the balance of just Western and spy. This became somewhat frequent, especially after season one and with the continuity of Dr. Loveless (one of the only recurring villains). The triangle of spy, Western, and scifi made for a good combo and encompassed basically everything that 1960s television was all about.

So there you have it: “The Wild Wild West” isn’t just an awful 1999 movie starring Will Smith. It was actually a show, and one that is still to my knowledge a complete rarity among others of its day. What do you think?

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