'ts not just about cool-looking six-gun shootouts and chases on horseback.
The real reason I love westerns on TV and film is because there might be no better canvas for exploring big ideas about life and society.
Packed with characters we know so well — from the crazy-eyed, bullying villain to the loner hero and befuddled, nonthreatening shopkeeper — westerns allow storytellers to speak volumes with a simple plot twist or detail tweak.
I've never seen a more powerful statement about the costs of violence, even in service of a righteous cause, than Clint Eastwood's transformation into a vengeful killer after downing a bottle of liquor in Unforgiven.
And there might be no better depiction of the complex, deep friendships between aging men than the longtime pals and former Texas Rangers played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in the Lonesome Dove miniseries.
Which is why it's so cool that the western genre is alive and kicking on TV right now. But you might not recognize it when you see it.
That's because the best westerns on television today aren't on-the-nose depictions of the Old West. (Sorry, Hell on Wheels, but your sprawling, post-Civil War story about building the transcontinental railroad seems mostly like a excuse to put great actors in dusty costumes.)
Instead, the best contemporary westerns take the archetypes we know so well and stick them in new, unpredictable situations.
Here's my list of the best westerns currently on TV (props to FX's Justified and A&E's Longmire, two great, new-school westerns that aren't airing new episodes now):
Vegas (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. CBS)
Why it's a western: Co-stars Dennis Quaid and Jason O'Mara are the classic irascible cowboy buddies; Quaid is a fictionalized version of real-life rancher Ralph Lamb, asked by Las Vegas' mayor to take over as sheriff just as the town was transforming from a tumbleweed-filled cow town to a gambling-fueled entertainment mecca. O'Mara plays Lamb's brother Jack; together the two stalk 1960s-era Las Vegas in Stetson hats and Texas-sized attitude, with the more gregarious Jack often butting heads with the more irascible (and sharper crime-solver) Ralph.
Why it's not, exactly: Michael Chiklis is the biggest wild card here, playing wiseguy-turned-casino boss Vincent Savino like a wily cross between Robert DeNiro's Ace Rothstein in Casino and DeNiro's Al Capone in The Untouchables. Chiklis and his buddies mix in mob hits and union struggles with the western stuff and whodunit crime mysteries to create a whole new animal.
Why it works: On a subtle level — or as subtle as network TV gets, anyway — Vegas is about the corruption of traditional values by easy money and too-quick modernization, a great topic for any real western story.
The Walking Dead (Sundays, 9 p.m., AMC)
Why it's a western: Sure, this is TV's best post-apocalyptic zombie drama. But Georgia sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is also a typical western hero, complete with a deadly revolver, flashy hat and righteous attitude put to the test leading a band of hardy survivors after the dead come back to flesh-eating life. The real question, as in so many westerns: Can the hero do what it takes to survive in a nasty environment without losing himself, his morality and his humanity?
Why it's not, exactly: Did I mention the flesh-eating zombies?
Why it works: The show's new character The Governor, is the mysterious leader of a closed-off town called Woodbury who comes of like a classic western smoothie — voice like a shot of bourbon and a gentlemanly manner hiding ruthless tactics. He also seems a nightmare vision of what Rick Grimes could become if he's not careful; a conscienceless, power-mad leader fooling himself into thinking he's saving others.
Sons of Anarchy (10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX)
Why it's a western: Centered on a gang of unruly, often-depraved and occasionally murderous bikers in California, this series humanizes a crowd of modern-day outlaws. In a way, it's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for a new generation, with biker leader Jackson "Jax" Teller (Charlie Hunnam) as the pretty-boy criminal with a heart of gold.
Why it's not, exactly: Even though these guys are riding around on metal horses, shooting up rivals and living outside the law, the hero and villain characters here are so ambiguous that the classic western types don't always apply.
Why it works: The biker gang at the heart of this show is bound together by a family-style loyalty that circumstances are always working to turn over or twist around. The biggest villain, Ron Perlman's Clay Morrow, constantly betrays that loyalty by killing people in the club when they get in his way. And there's no better way to suss out a hero and villain in a western than noting who keeps loyalties and who betrays them.