You would think that teenage me would have loved the idea of a new western TV show. After all, the only western on network television in the late ‘90s was Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, which was great fun, but not exactly crammed with cowboys. I loved westerns dearly already as a teen, so the logical thing for me to have done when CBS aired a new TV show called The Magnificent Seven in 1998 would have been to embrace it wholeheartedly.
But I didn’t. In all my teenage majesty, I shunned the show because how dare anyone make a TV version of one of my favorite films of all time, The Magnificent Seven (1960)? I refused to watch even a single episode. I mocked the advertisements every time I saw them. Nothing could ever prevail upon me to condone such a travesty.
Um, yeah. Teenage me lacked some wisdom, among other things.
Fast-forward to 2018, when my best friend (who had wisely watched the show back when it first aired) convinced me to try the show because it was free on Amazon Prime. By the end of the second episode, I was kicking my teenage self. Hard. Because this show was not trying to replicate the 1960 movie—it was taking the basic premise and creating something new with it. Something very, very fun.
Is there anything more delightful than seven professional loners discovering that, although they all preferred to work alone, they actually work much better together? I think not.
That’s probably why the 1954 Japanese film The Seven Samurai caught the attention of American filmmakers, who remade it into such a successful western, re-titled The Magnificent Seven (1960). That film generated three sequels over the next dozen years, plus a 2016 remake. And it also inspired the short-lived TV adaptation that ran for 22 episodes over two brief seasons from 1998 to 2000. The show which I once derided, but now love.
The show begins much the same way as the film, with poor villagers pooling their meager resources to hire a gunman or two to protect them from someone oppressing them. The two leaders of the seven gunmen they hire are named Vin and Chris. But that’s where the real similarities to the film end.
By the end of the pilot episode, the seven gunmen had successfully defended the village. So they all decide to go their separate ways. Which, obviously, would make for an exceedingly brief show, or a very disjointed one if we had to follow seven different paths. I think that could make for a cool anthology series, but never mind that, because the show solves this problem by having them all end up in a nearby town that has a problem with lawless yahoos shooting the place up all the time.
Enter Judge Oren Travis, played by Robert Vaughn, the only actor from the original film who appears in the show. Judge Travis hires the seven men to be a sort of private police force. He can’t swear them in as actual lawmen, but nobody really cares—they’re just happy to have some law and order in town at last.
Each of those seven characters is a bit of an archetype—Chris Larabee (Michael Biehn) is the volatile gunslinger with a dark past; Vin Tanner (Eric Close) is the helpful former bounty hunter; Buck (Dale Midkiff) is the womanizer with a heart of gold; Ezra (Anthony Starke) is the sly card sharp; Nathan (Rick Worthy) is the healer who also kills; Josiah (Ron Perlman) is the ever-questioning man of faith; and J.D. (Andrew Kavovit) is the annoying young greenhorn that struts and speaks and shoots too much. Chris and Vin remain the primary stars of the series, but all the other characters get episodes that focus on them as well.
When you blend all those archetypical characters together, you get a group of fully rounded, well-written, well-acted characters. (Yes, I’m continually annoyed by J.D., but he’s supposed to be annoying.) The large cast makes for seemingly endless combinations of characters, and the various groupings help bring out different facets of each character in a way that would be less organic in a smaller cast. If you put Ezra and Nathan together in a scene, wholly different things will happen than if you replaced one of them with J.D. or Josiah.
While the seven men form a loose family unit of sorts, particular friendships grow up between different sets of characters. Chris and Buck had already been friends before the show started, but Buck takes on a mentor role toward J.D. Ezra at first refuses to have anything to do with Nathan, for Ezra grew up in the Confederacy and Nathan is Black, but they eventually learn to respect and rely on each other. Vin and Chris understand each other better than any of the others, for they both have pasts that haunt them. And Josiah helps and gets helped by every member of the group at different times, as he constantly searches for meaning and truth and tries to guide others to the same.
The only real downside to this show is that it only ran for two half-seasons, and I would rather have had at least three full seasons to enjoy these lovely loners who formed a little found-family despite their best intentions to go their own, lonely ways. Well, that and the fact that it took me twenty years to finally watch it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com