WHATEVER else may be said of TV westerns, they come action-packed and freighted with mythology. From the late 1950s through the early '70s, Americans loved them not only because they dramatized our history as a people, but also because the best of them addressed values Americans held dear: independence, courage, respect for women, generosity, strength, proficiency, and wit.
TV westerns' new permutations still address our history and our values. Our views of both have changed, however. This season, a miniseries and several new television programs try to recapture something of that Old West - with varying degrees of success.
``Brisco County, Jr.'' and ``Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman'' return to the frontier for their stories, while ``Harts of the West'' and ``Walker, Texas Ranger'' bring something of western principles into 20th-century settings. But the closest to the old-fashioned western is ``Return to Lonesome Dove,'' a seven-hour sequel to the multiple-award-winning 1989 miniseries, ``Lonesome Dove.''
``Brisco County, Jr.'' - a tongue-in-cheek series airing Fridays on Fox - is a half-baked western with little to recommend it: stiff and amateurish acting, poor writing, hackneyed plots. ``Dr. Quinn'' (CBS, Saturdays, 8 p.m.), a ratings success, at least offers a few first-rate actors - Jane Seymour as Dr. Quinn struggles with poor dialogue and unbelievable stories cramping her considerable style. Both these shows try to put contemporary attitudes into the Old West. ``Gunsmoke'' and ``Bonanza'' did, too. The difference was, the latter were less self-conscious and less prescriptive, and they got the mannerliness right.
``Walker, Texas Ranger'' (CBS, Saturdays, 10 p.m.) tries to translate the old-style lawman into contemporary terms. But it's only a vehicle for Chuck Norris and his martial-arts skills. The great old lawmen of the past - from Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp and James Stewart's Destry in films to James Arness's Matt Dillon on TV - had a certain grace built into their humor, a penetrating intelligence built into their characters, all of which is missing here.
``Harts of the West'' (CBS, Saturdays, 9 p.m.) is by far the most successful of today's western-theme shows, and is holding its own in the ratings. A ladies' underwear salesman (Beau Bridges) who is a devotee of westerns (he's named his children after Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour and John Wayne) decides to move his family out West. He buys a ranch, sight unseen - it's a disaster area, of course. But the Harts, full of pioneer spirit, decide to make a go of it.
Though a few of the episodes have been a tad uneven, most are well-written, witty, and skillfully acted. It's a ``family values'' kind of program, but these family members are a little more conscious of where they find their values than most. The individualism and problem-solving independence that Mr. Hart aspires to is as noble as John Wayne ever made it in the movies.
Woodrow Call, the protagonist of ``Return to Lonesome Dove'' - airing on CBS Nov. 14, 16, and 18 - is played with complicated restraint and rich humanity by Jon Voight. In fact, Mr. Voight considers Wayne's ``Red River'' role part of a rich legacy informing the development of a character like Woodrow Call.
The story picks up where ``Lonesome Dove'' left off. Based on Larry McMurtry's novel of the same name, ``Lonesome Dove'' followed the exploits of a group of retired Texas Rangers as they drove their cattle from Texas to Montana. The hero, Augustus McCrea, dies in a battle with Indians, and the film closes with his best friend, Woodrow Call, driving his remains thousands of miles back to Texas for burial, as Gus had requested.
As ``Return to Lonesome Dove'' opens, Woodrow hires old friends and a variety of vaqueros to drive a herd of wild horses back to his ranch in Montana. Black and white, Mexican and American travel as equals across a landscape in which even most of the villains have some nobility. And yet these characters are not writ larger than life. Their humanity is kept intact by a good, if not a great, script and a series of entertaining, believable conflicts.
Its appeal lies to some extent in the recovery of certain older values, according to series star Voight. ``I think that it has to do with a time when there was more moral character,'' Voight told the Monitor in a recent telephone interview, ``a respect for women and a certain dimension of nobility and courage in men. I was very moved in `Lonesome Dove' that whenever [one of the male characters] met a woman he would take his hat off.''
In the old westerns, women were always treated with deference, but there is more than protective chivalry going on in new westerns, because all the women are powerful, smart, independent, and self-assured. in this film, too - as in other newer westerns - women and minorities are treated with more understanding, given fully human status, power, and intelligence. Some of the values in the movies have changed for the better, Voight agrees.
Of ranchers and cowboys, both real-life and on screen, ``There is a certain grace in the way they behave,'' Voight says, ``a certain beauty in the facing of the natural world and all its dilemmas. Everything is very clear. There is no way to escape yourself with distractions of other kinds.... These characters are noble characters, all of them. Were there noble people at this period in history? I believe there were....''