I’ve splashed into the vast catalog that is the FreeVee channel, and have now locked into what apparently was a very popular 1960’s era Western drama. One that aired over 270 episodes, each episode running (with commercials) for 90 minutes.
A 90-minute Western drama. Why have I not heard of this before?
Say hello to The Virginian.
The Virginian (yes, that’s the only name he uses) is the foreman / ranch boss at the Shiloh Ranch in the Wyoming Territory in 1896. Judge Henry Garth operates the Shiloh Ranch, which is a large, sprawling beef operation similar to Bonanza‘s Ponderosa or The Big Valley‘s Big Valley. The Virginian’s top hands are Steve Hill, a hardworking Cowboy, and Trampas (still haven’t figured out it that’s his first name or his last name), a solid hand who likes bar fights and women.
And each episode was treated almost as if it was a full-length motion picture – with sweeping cinematography, stirring music, and elongated story lines that seldom felt padded. And of course, this is a weekly drama, so it’s not unusual to see the usual major 1960’s TV stars in guest roles of one form or another.
And surprisingly, The Virginian went hard into adult themes – or at least adult-laden themes for the 1960’s television audience. One of the first episodes I watched involved whether Judge Garth’s daughter Betsy was really his – and the story goes in a much different tangent than I would have expected. Another episode features George C. Scott as a milquetoast schoolteacher forced to protect the town’s schoolchildren against a band of murderous drifters. It took me a while to figure out that I was actually watching the guy who won an Oscar for playing Patton go all-in as a timid professor.
But then comes the issue. How do you create a full season of 90-minute episodes every week?
Apparently, the producers figured out a way around this. Some episodes feature only The Virginian, some feature just Trampas and/or Steve Hill, while others focus on Judge Garth, with any of the other main characters appearing only in cameos. I suppose this way, two episodes could be filmed separately – sort of like a built-in “wheel” show like the NBC Mystery Movie or Name of the Game or some other 1960’s-era multi-story program.
The Virginian finished its run in the 1970-71 season, when it was rebranded as The Men from Shiloh for its final year. And surprisingly, with 270+ episodes available, you don’t hear very much about this drama series. Maybe it was its 90-minute run time, maybe the show had too many adult themes and not enough goofiness or soapiness. Among Westerns, only Gunsmoke and Bonanza aired more episodes than The Virginian, a show that outlasted such other prestige Westerns as Wagon Train, The Big Valley, and Death Valley Days.
Yeah, this is definitely a TV show worth having on in the background while you’re working on other things. Trust me, those 90 minute episodes – well, FreeVee has limited commercial breaks to begin with – those episodes fly by like nothing.
Just sayin’ is all.
Even with all the over-the-retro channels now – and all the Westerns that get played – I’m not surprised it hasn’t turned up. That 90-minute run-time is a killer.
Actually, it has. INSP runs it on the weekends, last I knew.
I watched it in real time.
And yes, the 90-minute slot did hamper its syndication chances