A long running Western series about the adventures of the Marshal and citizenry of Dodge City, Kansas. It started as a radio series, then moved to CBS television (with a completely different cast) in 1955. It lasted to 1975.At 20 seasons, the TV version was/is the longest-running prime time American dramatic series (Law & Order tied this record in 2010, though Gunsmoke produced more episodes) and the archetypical television example of the Western genre.The show's cast included some of the most memorable characters in television history, including Marshal Matt Dillon and the sassy Miss Kitty. A good example of its impact: the planet on which the "Space Western" series Trigun is set is called "Gunsmoke".
This TV series provides examples of:
Adaptation Name Change: Chester's surname went from "Proudfoot" in the radio series to "Goode" in the TV version.
All Crimes Are Equal: Stealing a horse is a hanging offense. (May fall under Reality Is Unrealistic, as horse theft in the old west was often punished by execution- it was originally a capital offense, but even after the laws changed lynchings were still common.)
Ascended Extra: Festus, of all characters, initially showed up in a single episode of season 8, out to kill an uncle who had shot Festus' twin brother. Prior to that, Ken Curtis had played other characters in previous episodes, and even played a different character in the season 9 opener before Festus was brought back as a permanent character.
Also happened with Clayton Thadeus Greenwood- he first showed up as an Oklahoma deputy after wanted men, only to be invited to move to Dodge at the end of the episode. He eventually appeared again, became a recurring character, and was elevated to main cast status when added to the show's opening credits in season 12.
Newly started the same way before becoming a full cast member.
Asian Speekee Engrish: Played straight in season 1's "The Queue" when the Chinese immigrant first arrives in Dodge, then subverted later when Matt speaks to him in Doc's office- he intentionally speaks that way as he claimed people expected him to.
Asshole Victim: Wife beaters who got shot by the abused spouse, or much any psychopath who either beat women, abused their kids or was on some deranged moral crusade that Matt had to shoot. It was obvious that Matt hated having to arrest certain people when the victim was such an absolute monster who was asking for it.
The Bartender: Sam, Miss Kitty's right-hand man, who was eventually killed in a bar fight.
Bittersweet Ending: downer endings were the frequent ones, happy endings not so common, and this happened quite a bit in between. Especially so if an innocent man is sentenced to hang for a murder he didn't commit- the real killer might be caught, but perhaps not in time to clear the innocent man.
Call Back: Actually not all that common despite a 20 year run, but it did happen
Season 13's "Wonder" features two of the characters from season 8's "I Call Him Wonder".
Characterization Marches On: When Festus first showed up we were given the impression that the Haggen family were primarily criminals and that he only worked with Matt because he wanted revenge on an uncle for the death of his twin brother during a botched bank robbery. There was also an implication that the Haggen family would disown him for what he'd done. When he showed up in season 9 he leans more towards honest work and associating with Matt, and in the season 11 opener he was ready to take the job of Marshal when he thought Matt had been killed. He's appointed temporary deputy as needed(as explained why Chester wasn't a deputy, the US government wouldn't authorize pay for deputies unless there was an emergency), until season 13 where it seems more permanent. The rest of the Haggen family also held him in high regard- they thought he was the "smart" one of the family(which considering how most of the Haggens behaved, wasn't too far from the truth).
Elbert Moses, a hill man from later seasons, was originally a scumbag who beat his cousin Merry Florene mercilessly and tried to rob the general store, even willing to take hostages and threaten to kill. In his second appearance after getting out of the work farm he was sentenced to, he was more of a comedy character, with his abuse to Merry toned down, and in his third appearance is even more of a goofy comedic individual, still willing to commit crime but only harmless ones, and seems almost protective of Merry.
Festus Haggen. Though he was not full-time deputized until season 13.
Chester more or less served as this in the first few TV seasons, although the character was never officially deputized.
Both were only "clueless" if the script called for comedic moments- given half the chance, both of them could be quite competent and skilled at their jobs- Chester especially so.
Thad could be this at times, generally because he grew up in a peaceful Oklahoma town and took some adjustment to get used to life in Dodge.
Averted with Newly- he knew the law, was educated and was an expert gunsmith.
Color-Coded Characters: When the show went to color in season 12, some... interesting wardrobe choices were made to show it off.
Matt wore a reddish-purple shirt with yellow vest
Festus wore a lot of bright blue
Miss Kitty wore purple
Convenient Terminal Illness: Painter from "Anyone Can Kill A Marshall" only took the job to shoot Matt as he was dying from illness and needed the money to help a friend- he probably had no real intention of even killing Matt as he aimed for the legs and figured getting shot to death was better than wasting away.
At least from season 1 through 10, downer endings were the norm- happy endings were the rare ones.
Early-Installment Weirdness: The first season often featured an opening scene where Matt walked through Boot Hill, lamenting on the people there and the violence in Dodge. These opening segments were quickly dropped.
Eye Scream: Real world example; frequent guest actor Jack Elam suffered injury to his left eye as a child, leaving his eye pointing sideways. He was usually tasked with playing outlaws and other vicious characters, though he did have a few heroic roles- his eye condition was finally lampshaded in season 16's "Murdoch", his character had suffered an eye injury after being shot in the head. After years of appearances it was the first time it'd been acknowledged on screen.
Bounty Hunter Louis Stark, from season 16's "Stark" had a similar condition- a gun had blown up in his face, leaving his left eye blinded and his right eye cloudy.
One episode featured an outlaw with one eye and a scar over this face. While attempting to break into Doc's office to kill a witness, said witness threw a knife at the window, shattering the glass which lodged in his one good eye.
Getting Crap Past the Radar: It may not have been obvious to viewers back then, but at least two episodes have instances where a man enters a home on the prairie with a lone woman inside, and the next thing we know the woman is injured. To modern audiences, the circumstance combined with Matt's reaction make it clear the woman had been raped but they could not say as much at the time these episodes had been made.
Finally subverted in season 11, when the word "rape" was allowed to be said directly to reference the crime itself instead of merely vague hints of it.
A few of Miss Kitty's dresses in season 10 showed a fair amount of cleavage.
Hollywood Healing: Matt took bullet after bullet, yet healed up like he was in a video game.
Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Word of God says that Miss Kitty is this. The television show never states what she does for a living, but in one episode of the radio series it was hinted that Miss Kitty is a prostitute (which would have been pretty edgy back in 1952).
Humans Are White: No doubt a result of southern stations unwilling to air shows with non-whites as the show began before the civil rights movement. Aside from occasional Indian characters, and a single Chinese character, we didn't get a non-white main character until season 8(Quint, and even then he was half white), and the first African-Americans character didn't appear until season 9(correction- season 1's "Lute Bone" did have a black character with a speaking role, but it woul dbe several seasons after that before another would appear). A few non-speaking Chinese character appear in the background on occasion, with one episode centered on a Chinese-run laundry in season 13. It wasn't until late in the 14th season that the show began to feature more African-Americans characters, first in "Mark Of Cain" and then a group of ex-slaves in "The Good Samaritans". Despite this, non-white characters were generally treated with respect whereas a few racist white characters were often killed or humiliated.
In particular, the first season had an episode about a Chinese character and the racism he had to endure day after day.
I Have Your Wife: At least one episode included villains who kidnapped Miss Kitty in order to trap Matt.
Ill Girl: Newly's wife. Her death prompted him to become Doc's apprentice.
In one episode, a thief is executed for a murder he didn't commit.
Another time, a man is convicted of stealing a horse that he paid for. It's subverted in that Matt believes he's innocent, and doesn't.
Miss Kitty: Miss Kitty Russell is now more or less universally assumed to be a Madam as well as saloonkeeper, and her impeccably dressed and coiffed girls up to more activity than just dancing and playful flirting. (The producer-director is quoted in a 1953(!) Time magazine interview: "We never say it, but Kitty is a prostitute, plain and simple." And Amanda Blake said in an interview in 1960, "When I first started, a reporter asked me what Kitty was, anyway? I said, ‘Why, she’s a tramp.’ I thought it was common knowledge. But CBS screamed. I almost lost my job.”) But these implications were subtle enough to go over the heads of younger and more naive viewers.
The Great Plains were known as The Great American Desert until modern irrigation techniques made planting sustainable crops possible. However, the definition of desert in this case was defined by the fact that the air is dry and summer temperatures could be extremely hot during a time period when it wasn't possible to cool off easily. Some kinds of cactus can grow in Kansas, but not the same as you'd see in Arizona.
The Movie: There were a couple of made-for-television movie sequels to the series, including one that introduced the character of Matt's daughter.
Never Learned to Read: Festus' illiteracy is often brought up; sometimes it serves as a critical plot point, but often is used as comedic fodder, particularly as a target of Doc's sarcastic mockery. This can come off as insensitive to modern-day viewers; however, such humor was not unusual in the show's broadcast era, and illiteracy would have hardly been uncommon in the 19th Century frontier setting.
It wasn't so much Festus being unable to read that drew Doc's mockery, so much as his stubborn refusal to admit it. This went as far as refusing to learn to read, as that would require admitting that he couldn't read in the first place, and once creating his own language just so throw the mockery back at Doc for not being able to read it.
Never Speak Ill of the Dead: There's a boy whose father is killed, and says the man never loved him. He is chastised by a judge, who shows him that his father did love him, he just didn't know how to show it.
Red Shirt: Shootouts would be boring if nobody ever died.
Retcon: It was clear that the earlier episodes of the show had yet to establish when the series was set... 1873 seems to be the official year, but some of the headstones on Boot Hill in the early episodes had dates of death in the 1880s. One episode took place shortly before the battle of Little Big Horn... which was 1876. A grave marker in season 9 has a date of death of 1878 on it, then a marker in season 15 has a date of 1874! To make it even worse, starting around season 13 they start mentioning that certain characters have been in town at their jobs for X number of years- the same as the show had been running, which would indicate a passage of time.
Series Continuity Error: Matt's office has two cells in the back, with one in the back and one along the wall. Except for one episode in season 10 where a 3rd cell pops up for no reason in a area that's usually walled off, only to vanish after that episode.
This happens again in season 11- one episode has the mystery third cell added back in, and another rearranges the cells to move the office's back door into the cell room, all for plot convenience.
Matt's office was a main room with 3 doors, and a rear room with two cells- but plot reasons would change the layout as needed. Even though many episodes would lampshade the fact they only had two cells.
Another episode featured Matt's home- even though every other episode implies that he lives out of the office. It was never seen after that episode.
In the season 12 opener he rents a room at the Dodge House, instead of going to his house from the earlier episode.
Spoiled Brat: In the episode "Susan was Evil", Susan is selfish and unkind because she always got whatever she wanted. When it appears as if she isn't going to get her way, she betrays her aunt's fiance to bounty hunters.
Spoiler Title: The episode "The Widow and the Rogue". Her husband dies.
This actually happens with a lot of episode titles- though as the titles were never shown on screen it wasn't a problem on first airing.
Super Drowning Skills: Shoving someone's head under water for 5 seconds on this show was enough to kill them.
Syndication Title: The half-hour TV episodes were retitled Marshal Dillon in order to differentiate them from the hour-long episodes that were later made.
Unresolved Sexual Tension: The show never entirely specified what the relationship between Matt and Miss Kitty was, but it seemed generally understood by the rest of the cast that they were somehow involved. The producers toyed with having them get married, but ultimately held off as they thought it would change the formula too much, in those days when Status Quo Is God was absolutely the norm.
Vitriolic Best Buds: Doc Adams and Festus. Much of the show's humor lies in their constant bickering and sarcastic snarking, but just let one or the other get sick/injured or in any kind of trouble, and their underlying affection and respect becomes apparent.
The Worf Effect: Happened in the first episode! Matt was gunned down and nearly killed in the series premiere, and several more times in the series. Matt may have been a head taller than most everyone, a fast draw and usually a better fist fighter than most but there were a fair few who could equal him, not to mention a few that were willing to cheat.
Many later-season episodes barely feature star James Arness at all, a concession to his physical ailments (war injuries and his height led to chronic leg and joint pain). Often, Matt Dillon would be featured only in the opening and closing scenes, with his absence in-between explained by some out-of-town errand. Several episodes' worth of these brief scenes would be filmed in a few days, giving Arness more rest time between Dillon-heavy episodes.
Later seasons? This happened a few times even in earlier episodes. Matt would either show up at the beginning and end, or not be seen at all.
Milburn Stone's 1971 heart surgery caused his absence for a number of episodes. His character, Doc Adams, was said to have unexpectedly left town for updated medical training after he believes his rural isolation and lack of newer skills contributed heavily to the death of a young girl.
You Look Familiar: Over the 20 season run, a few actors came back to play other characters.