HowtheWestwasWoncoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
1978-79, 900 min. (14 episodes), Color
Not rated; would be PG for some violence and adult situations
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: None

What does the star of an iconic TV Western do after the series ends its 20-year run? If that star is James Arness, he goes right from Gunsmoke to How the West Was Won, turning in his marshal’s badge to hobble around bowlegged as cagey frontier scout Zeb Macahan.

Gunsmoke left the small screen after the 1974-75 season, and the following year Arness donned fringed buckskins to play Zeb Macahan in a TV movie. That realistic, location-shot film was so popular that it led to a mini-series in 1977, and a bona fide TV series in 1978. But Westerns were on their way out. Gunsmoke was the #1 TV show in America from 1957 to 1960, but How the West Was Won only managed to place 11th its first season, four places behind Little House on the Prairie—the only other Western to crack the Top 30 shows. After that, it dropped out of the Nielsen elite, leaving Little House on the Prairie as the only popularly watched Western. It was clearly the end of an era.

Partly, though, it was because the blend of realism and melodrama that sustained How the West Was Won its first two outings started to tip more toward melodrama by the second season. And Arness, who was so genially believable as the crusty Zeb Macahan, develops a slight case of John Wayne syndrome this season, with his performance at times resembling a caricature of his character.

That said, Season 2 is still a cut above the average TV Western. 

HowtheWestwasWonscreenYou can still get caught up in the action pretty easily, because the plots are more varied than the pioneer experience. There are run-ins with stagecoach robbers, Indians, rustlers, bounty hunters, gunfighters skinners, mountain folk, Mormons, and visiting Russian dignitaries. This season is also a roller coaster for Luke (Bruce Boxleitner), the Macahan who’s wanted by the law for desertion and for killing a man, despite the extenuating circumstances. He’s both hero and victim, with hope and despair tugging at each pant leg.

HowtheWestwasWon3The acting is solid, for the most part, with other main characters played by Fionnula Flanagan (Molly Culhane ), Kathryn Holcomb (Laura Macahan), William Kirby Cullen (Josh Macahan), and Vicki Schreck (Jessie Macahan). This season Ricardo Montalban won an Emmy for his guest appearance as Indian chief Satangkai. Also look for veterans like Slim Pickens, Brian Keith, Tim Matheson, William Shatner, and Lloyd Bridges.

There aren’t as many realistic details this season as in the miniseries, but there’s enough to where you get a history lesson from time to time, and location filming adds to the sense of reality. If your family likes TV Westerns, this one may well hold their interest, even though the “children” are grown and the series isn’t as apple-pie wholesome as Little House on the Prairie.

The six-disc, 14-part set comes in an oversized clamshell case with the discs held on separate plastic “pages.”