How Gunsmoke Pushed the Boundaries of Western Fiction in New, Progressive Ways

When Gunsmoke was released for the very first time as a radio show, the scope of ambition from the producers and the writers have always been apparent. The transition that happened from the radio show to the TV show has made a lot of changes, more notably on how the main character, Marshall Matt Dillon, has been portrayed. But the core themes have always been intact, and it has touched on these themes in the whole 20 year run of the legendary hit TV-series.

What set apart Gunsmoke during its era are the marked progressive thematic explorations underpinning every episode. It’s a far cry from ‘The Lone Ranger’ which has always been superficial in its approach to storytelling. Gunsmoke showed viewers that women can be much more than what the rest of the clichéd Westerns have portrayed them to be. Kitty Russell, played by talented actress Amanda Blake, is a strong female character that transcended the expectations of what a female protagonist should be, specifically in the tropes commonly used in typical Western TV series or films.

In a society where women aren’t even allowed to vote yet, Kitty Russell displayed a strength of character and conviction that touches on a woman’s innate struggle for independence. As a character, Kitty Russell had been the voice of reason whenever the main protagonist is having any doubts as to the righteousness of his decisions.

The film was also showcased during a time where racism was still fairly common in most entertainment mediums. The TV series raised a lot of eyebrows when Marshall Matt Dillon fought for the rights of the ethnic minority, going out of his way to protect black people and Indian people from the tyrannical mob.

The ‘Wild West’ era was particularly hard on the Indian people, so to show a hero of Marshall Matt Dillon’s stature that shows no prejudice against the Indian people, was a sure indication that Gunsmoke is a revisionist approach in Western tropes. To Marshall Matt Dillon, race and color have no bearing on how he exacts justice. You commit a crime, you answer to the Marshall, your color or racial identity be damned.

As a Western TV series, Gunsmoke was never afraid to take risks. It was quite eclectic. It used the tropes that are commonly used in Western fiction and upended them in a way that is fresh, groundbreaking, and boundary-pushing. There are episodes where you’ll have a 30 minute stretch of people just talking to each other in the saloon. The conversation pieces appear mundane, but in actuality have a bearing on the whole story that is yet to be told. The previous episode might involve people just talking about mundane stuff and the next episode might have a drastic shift in tone – chaotic, grim, or balls-off-the-wall.

This sophisticated approach in storytelling was the reason Gunsmoke survived 20 seasons. It was simply ahead of its time, and there’s no doubt that the fearlessness in the writing and the directing present in Gunsmoke made quite a positive influence on how TV was made in the subsequent years after it was taken off the air.

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