Matt Dillon, oh how I miss you!

James Arness (1923-2011) played Marshal Matt Dillon on the TV series “Gunsmoke” from 1955-1975. Source: LA Times Obituary

Sometimes I put myself to sleep by watching movies and TV programs on my iPad. I was delighted to see that the Encore channel carries a hundred or more episodes of Gunsmoke, a show I started watching when I was 6 and continued to watch until it went off the air in 1975. Watching these old episodes made me realize why I tuned in every week, and made me wonder if we weren’t better off with shows like Gunsmoke. They made us think about stuff like courage, honor, loyalty, and decency. These, unfortunately, aren’t virtues that are as popular today as say saving the whales or redistributing wealth, so we don’t hear as much about them.

Okay, why am I writing about Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke? Gunsmoke was a television series (one of the longest-running series ever). What does this have to do with books?

Nothing. But it has everything to do with writing. Every television series (excluding reality TV, which is not reality and not TV as far as I am concerned) requires a script, and there are good and bad script writers out there. (Don’t get me started on comedy writers; the pitiful skits that they present on Saturday Night Live these days don’t even qualify as writing: they have completely lost the art.). Gunsmoke had some of the best writers in the business, and I miss that. Intelligent TV–whether Western, Detective, or anything. I miss it.

Oh sure, there were guns. The opening credits start out with Matt facing down a gunfighter. But that was just fluff. The meat was in the stories, written by some of the best scriptwriters: writers who could develop a story with depth requiring an attention span that could go beyond a punchline. In other words, for a generation not raised on Sesame Street.

One episode, for example, had a theme of courage (When was the last time you heard this word used in a TV series, or held up as an ideal?). It starred Glen Corbett, a good looking young actor who starred later on Route 66. He played a young man named Dan Collins who always shied away from trouble. He somehow ends up in the robbery of a stagecoach stop where all of the bandits are found dead. They killed themselves fighting over the money, but people thought Dan Collins had killed them. He now had an undeserved reputation as a gunfighter. For once, however, he was respected and treated well. He enjoyed his new celebrity and so did nothing to disabuse anyone of the notion that he had, in fact, saved the day .

That is until he fell in love with a young woman whose brother was threatened by a wealthy rancher who was trying to force them off their property. The rancher hired killers to run them off. Collins, in love with the girl, confesses that he is not a hero. Then, in the end, four gunmen attack the ranch and Collins, at first hesitant, charges in and kills three of the four before the fourth shoots him down. Of course, Matt Dillon rides in in time to stop the last gunman. But Collins, the man who thought himself a coward, died showing extreme bravery and gaining–in death (unfortunately)–the deserved reputation of a hero.

Honor. Courage. Decency. Honesty. All of these virtues ended up as themes in this oh so great TV series, shown as standing out in  an imperfect world filled with many who were not honorable, honest, or even courageous. A world just like the one we live in now.

I just wish we had shows on TV to remind us of those things now.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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