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Saddle Up! TV Westerns Hot

Chris Large/AMC

As "Hell on Wheels" comes to AMC, several networks prep cowboy shows.

Long considered a dormant TV format, the Western series could be making a big return to the small screen. In addition to AMC's Hell on Wheels, which bows in November and is set amid the building of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1860s, the genre has become one of the most in-demand in TV development circles during the current cycle.

TNT recently ordered to pilot Gateway, an action-adventure set in 1880s Colorado, from executive producer Bruce C. McKenna (The Pacific). ABC nabbed Gunslinger from David Zabel (Detroit 1-8-7) and Hangtown, a procedural pitch set in the Wild West, from Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ron Moore. CBS and author Nicholas Pileggi (GoodFellas) are prepping Ralph Lamb, based on the 1960s adventures of a real-life cowboy-turned-Las Vegas sheriff, and NBC has ordered a script for Shaun Cassidy's 1840s-set The Frontier.

"They're simple, emotional stories that you can make sense of in the context of the world," AMC senior vp original programming Joel Stillerman says of the appeal. It doesn't hurt that True Grit, the Western movie remake starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, grossed more than $250 million in the winter, making it the second-highest-grossing Western ever. Hell on Wheels follows AMC's 2006 Western miniseries Broken Trail, its first original scripted effort and still its biggest commercial success. "Writers are hunting for 'what's next' always," says a TV agent, noting that it has been a tough year to sell sci-fi and comic book fare given the "uncertain future" of fall series Grimm, The River and Terra Nova.

To be sure, the latest crop is filled with twists on the traditional formula that proliferated in the early days of TV with such series as Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. For instance, NBC sister studio Universal TV has set up an untitled Western told from a female perspective from Peter Berg and fellow Friday Night Lights producers. Zabel's series also centers on a female hero.

The knock on dust-and-tumbleweeds dramas is that they are "distinctly American," as one source puts it, which can hurt internationally. What's more, the genre is often criticized for older-skewing viewership, hardly the coveted demo of deep-pocketed advertisers. But the appeal of the Western seems timeless. Says Stillerman, "There's usually a good guy and a bad guy, relatively clear moral boundaries, and aesthetically it's a beautiful genre."

Mario Anzuni/Reuters/Landov