If network TV has taught us anything, it's that America's heart and soul reside in its small towns. The Andy Griffith Show, Father Knows Best, Little House on the Prairie taught us about the frontier spirit that built the nation and the moral clarity that guides it.
Crime, we learned, was entirely urban, a social disease that festered in big cities.
That was before Walter White took us into the New Mexico desert on AMC's Breaking Bad; before Raylan Givens, the Stetson-sporting lawman on FX's Justified, gave us a tour of the Kentucky trailer parks where prostitutes and gun dealers ply their trade; before Detective Rustin "Rust" Cohle introduced us to a Louisiana scarred by abandoned factories and polluted waterways in HBO's stunning masterwork True Detective.
While the networks continue setting crime shows in New York and Los Angeles, cable channels have introduced a new breed of drama that puts the lie to the notion that violent crimes are fundamentally urban phenomena.
The list of shows is impressive: The Red Road, premiering Thursday on Sundance, is about the unlikely partnership of a white cop and a Native American career criminal who live in a tiny mountain town in North Jersey.
Banshee on Cinemax is about a convicted jewel thief who cons his way into becoming the sheriff of a small burg in Pennsylvania Dutch country. A&E's contemporary western Longmire features gorgeous horses and even more beautiful Wyoming landscapes. Rectify on Sundance is about a convicted rapist and murderer who returns to his small Georgia community after his sentence is suspended. Sons of Anarchy on FX tells of the comings and goings in Charming, an ideal Northern California town run by a violent outlaw motorcycle club. And HBO's eerie, David Lynchian epic True Detective, stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as detectives who hunt a serial killer through a desolate countryside that's home to some of America's poorest, most disenfranchised citizens.
Even Law & Order creator Dick Wolf has gotten in on the act with Cold Justice, a reality series about two former big-city law enforcement officials who solve cold cases in small towns across the country.
"It's a myth that you can move to a small town and leave your windows open and your door unlocked," said Cold Justice star Yolanda McClary, a former Las Vegas Police Department detective and crime scene investigator. "But what makes small towns different is the effect violent crime has on the whole community. Everyone knows each other and is connected emotionally."
That crucible effect can make for exciting drama, said Banshee cocreator Jonathan Tropper. Set amid Amish farms, the fictional town of Banshee not only has a crook as its top cop; its richest citizen, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), is an Amish outcast who rules a violent criminal empire. "It's so much more horrifying to be confronted with the evil that exists in an otherwise Norman Rockwellian town," Tropper said. "If small towns are the bedrock of America, then it's like showing that bedrock is riddled with termites."
Cable TV's focus on rural crime doesn't reflect a change in crime rates, University of Pennsylvania criminologist Emily Owens said. "Violent crime rates are far higher in urban than suburban and rural areas. And the differences have remained stable" over five decades.
Yet there is a difference in perception: Urban-renewal programs in the 1990s were so successful they captured the media's attention, Owens said. When the crack epidemic in the inner cities subsided, more headlines were devoted to the meth problem in suburban and rural areas.
Even if they tackle modern problems such as meth, Breaking Bad and its sister shows reiterate familiar themes from the western, said Wyoming author Craig Johnson, whose Longmire novels form the basis of the A&E show.
"There is always going to be that romance with the American West," he said. "But we're not talking your great-great-grandfather's West, you are talking about the West today." Johnson's cop hero, Walt Longmire, handles cattle thieves, but he also has to deal with pot farms run by Mexican cartels.
Though Longmire continues the western tradition of the righteous lawman, Sons of Anarchy taps the spirit of the bandit and the outlaw, said pop culture scholar David Schmid, author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture.
"In the cities, we tend to see crime unambiguously as a real social malaise, as a problem that is destructive," he said. "But in these shows, crime is not just a product of social breakdown, it's also a creative act, a crucible that forms your identity."
True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto said the traditional western presented America as a land of endless opportunities. That optimism, he said, is long gone.
Pizzolatto's story, which draws heavily from a long tradition of horror literature and existential philosophy, casts a chilling eye on the devastation that a century of economic shifts wrought on America: The countryside is ravaged by pollution and dotted with abandoned factories and warehouses.
"These spaces in the country don't get a lot of attention, but that's where the real American story seems to be happening," Pizzolatto said. It's a story of economic collapse, loss of faith in institutions, and the yawning inequality between rich and poor.
"The crisis of the middle class and its effective dissolution is felt throughout the country, but is rarely dramatized," he said.
If True Detective is a western, he added, then it's the story of "an exhausted frontier."