Gunsmoke is one of the first television shows I can remember watching. One of the best things about it is its complexity, diversity, rich tapestry for storytelling, and its appeal even now to diverse generations and age groups.
Among the first of its kind, one of the first westerns to make the jump from radio to television, it set the standard not only for other western series but for the way shows were developed for television. It managed to keep the overall feeling of the serialized radio show while utilizing the new media of television to tell its stories. Some of the special effects and stunts are cutting edge for the era and beautifully executed.
The concept of the same actors playing out the lives of their characters was new. Gunsmoke holds the distinction of being the only live action television show to have its main characters played by the same actors for its entire twenty year run. This allowed the writers to explore the characters' personalities in more depth. The result was a stunning character study for each character reflecting how personal experience changes them over time.
Another concept introduced by the show was continuity. Earlier episodes lack this and you'll find wild variations in the characters' back stories. Some episodes which aired in later years apparently take place before earlier episodes. In later years, the writers tried for a more solid linear story line and this eventually became standard for most television shows.
Gunsmoke also didn't shy away from exploring a variety of topics which were considered controversial at the time of airing. Domestic violence, women's rights, and child abuse are all themes which the show tackles head-on with a modern slant in a classical setting. It was one of the first shows to break the romanticized stereotype of the Native American and to attempt to show the settling of the west from their point of view.
I continue to be amazed by the long list of supporting actors Gunsmoke whose careers either started or were boosted on that set. Guest appearances have included William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ron Howard, Burt Reynolds, and Dennis Weaver to name a few.
These are the things which make this an influential, classic staple for me and the reasons why, years later, I am still watching the show in syndication. In spite of the violent setting and the often shocking subject matter, the show still portrays wholesome societal morals and family values. It's a family show with something to offer all ages whose topics are often still relevant. The acting and storytelling alone, along with all the cinematic precedents it set, make it worth watching.