TV Westerns Prove The West Is Still Fun

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From the first five minutes of Vegas, there's no mistaking its classic Western heritage — they even have Stetson-wearing heroes wrangling a herd of cattle on horseback.

The year is 1960, and nail-tough rancher Ralph Lamb has been talked into serving as the top cop in Las Vegas. Lamb's only problem: He's taking over just as the mob is trying to turn Vegas from a sleepy ranch town into the world's grown-up playground.

In Vegas, the white hats just want to run their ranches, while the black hats fight over money, gambling and power.

I was raised on Clint Eastwood cowboy movies, so I love Westerns. They're great canvases for exploring big ideas about life and society.

And Vegas follows that tradition. It explores everything from the perils of urban vice to the spiritual cost of modern life. Along the way, it stretches out CBS' procedural crime formula with Mad Men-era retro cool and a hint of mob drama.

In fact, Vegas is a much better Western than another show that's actually set in the Old West. AMC's gritty Hell on Wheels is named for the portable town that workers used when they were building the transcontinental railway after the Civil War.

Hell on Wheels is a historically accurate old-school Western, complete with saloon fights, attacks from the Sioux Nation tribes, and a laconic gunslinger. But this series isn't really about anything, besides putting particularly cool antiheroes in precisely dirtied-up Western settings.

In fact, my favorite TV Western of the year takes place right in the present day: A&E's Longmire.

Walt Longmire is a modern-day sheriff in Wyoming, a character straight from the novels of crime writer Craig Johnson.

Longmire is an old-school lawman who almost gave up on life when his wife was killed. But over the course of the first season, he's learned to reclaim his place in an increasingly modern world.

This stuff is what makes great Westerns really cool — not flashy horse riding, six-gun shootouts or even an Old West setting. It's about the best combination of substance and style. And when it comes to entertainment, you can't get much cooler than that.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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