I think that TV shows set in the late 1800s-early 1900s must follow an exact formula and I believe I've nailed down the highlights and it is these highlights that I'm going to share with you.
In order to become a "successful" TV series set in this time you must have an episode about...
1. Fire - Either the barn, the house, the town, or all three need to catch fire. It is preferred that a child starts it, but it's usually first blamed on the town's "outsider" (we'll touch on this later).
2. Horse - Typically, these shows are set around people who don't have a lot of money so buying something like a horse is a big deal. Even if they have money and already have a horse, there will be an episode where one either gets gravely ill and makes a miraculous comeback OR it dies. It sort of depends on the time-slot and network as to which outcome the execs choose.
3. Epidemics - There's nothing like a life-or-death experience to bring a town together. In these series, the epidemic is typically concentrated on the children (smallpox, scarlet fever, measles, etc) but on occasion they can get a bout of typhoid that brings the whole town to its knees. In these episodes (which are often a 2-parter), you get to see the character that's afraid of the sick, the character that's going to pull on the Big Girl/Boy Panties and be the hero, and the character that's in love with the main character but too afraid until now to say anything. These episodes are very emotional and (again depending on time-slot and network) we sometimes see character death.
4. Snow/Weather - In this era, there's not a lot going on and weather is a big driver for life: when to plant, when to harvest, when to have barn raisings...etc. Generally, the "weather" episode is surrounding a snow storm; the heavier the blizzard, the more the drama. Usually, these storms are quite unexpected with only a few hours notice and, wouldn't you know, the main character has JUST set off on a trip into town and there's no way to reach him/her! So, sometimes, the character that loves him/her (but has kept it a secret) runs out into the impending weather apocalypse in order to attempt to save their life and their love. It's really intense.
5. Native Americans - You can't have a show set in this time without dedicating at least one episode to Native Americans. The way in which a series handles this content varies but rest assured that there will be at least one character that will have nothing to do with the Native Americans (typically a child so that they can be vocal without being considered AS prejudiced as if it were an adult) and at least one that thinks the way of life presented is the best thing since sliced bread. There's usually a vision quest and at least one character gets an "Indian name".
6. African Americans - This episode usually doesn't air until the show is certain to make it past the initial cut. Again, there is usually a child that doesn't want to be involved with the new characters who are typically a family from New York or Boston. Due to the nature of the topic, these episodes generally end with a party or community gathering of some sort where everyone comes together to welcome the new residents.
7. Babies/Abuse - I put these two together because they typically air in the same episode and, more often than not, are about the same character. Sometimes a young pregnant woman turns up in the woods, sometimes she stumbles into the church, sometimes she walks right in to the school already in labor...her entrances are varied but her story is usually one of two: 1. she got pregnant out of wedlock and her parents kicked her out, or 2. her husband beats her and she wants a better life for her child so she ran. This episode is really emotionally charged with all sorts of drama; the main character feels the need to care for the woman and/or baby and contemplates rushing into a family arrangement in order to make that happen. This episode is filled with all sorts of other "love" with the minor characters and typically happens in the spring.
8. Robbers - The thought of being held up at gun point and demanded money of is a scary one, the thought of being held up at gun point in the late 1800s is terrifying. No cell phones, no police cars cruising the area, no self-defense classes...you were pretty much a sitting duck. Robberies happened and I'm sure they happened often. Based on the amount of different types I've seen on TV alone, I couldn't imagine the fear involved in taking the honey-crop to the market. Don't worry, though, usually the thief is dealt with and belongings are returned at the end of the episode.
9. Writing - This is kind of a weird one when you first think about it but I'm sure you'll recognize just how common it is in a minute or two. It seems that in order to stand out in these small towns, one must become published. Now, it doesn't seem to matter whether that's in a national publication or just the local paper but, never-the-less, it's a big deal and an entire episode is dedicated to finding out who the town's best writer is.
10. Cheating - Even if the series in question is not surrounding children or a school...there is always an episode about cheating. Usually, the person being cheated off of is shy or always bullied so he/she doesn't stand up for themselves until the very end or never at all and it's the cheatER that ends up confessing all in a teary-eyed moment of humility. It's very moving and you're so happy that the character saw the error in his/her ways.
11. Kidnapping - Just like with robberies, according to what we see in these series, kidnapping was a common occurrence during this era. Whether the main character gets taken when out on a walk, in a storm, or whether he/she stumbles upon the kidnapper by accident varies from series to series. This is an episode that really brings out the courage and fortitude not only of the main character but also the supporting cast. These episodes usually end with the kidnapper seeing the error in his ways and surrendering.
12. Weddings - This is usually one of the last episodes of the season/series. It's not necessarily a wedding between the main characters or even the main supporting cast...it's just an episode who's sole purpose is to get the main character on the wedding thought-train. These series are usually following a woman who is either recently widowed or has never been married so, going along with the times, finding the right man is one of her most common thoughts. The wedding episode allows the writers to have an entire hour to devote to this topic where otherwise they wouldn't risk it due to fans not wanting to spend too much time away from the "real" story. 'Cause, you know, people who watch period series are watching it for the historical accuracies and not for the character drama and def not because they want to see the main character admit she's in love with the handyman...
13. The Cliff-Hanger - The sad truth is, period series typically don't last. Unless you're Little House on the Prairie...you're extremely fortunate to make it past two (abbreviated) seasons. The only hope these series have is to end in such a way as to make the few fans they have cry for more. The cliff-hanger is the cruelest of cruels. You never find out any real answers and if you aren't lucky enough to have your cries of injustice heard by the execs, the only place you can turn for speculation as to how it all turned out is...fanfiction. And that, my friends, is the slipperiest of slopes reserved only for those who are not faint of heart and the grammatically confident.
I love period series. They're super easy to follow and tend to not have the blood, lust, and general insanity that is in most other television today. That being said, the formula does get old and I do tire of having to weed through the atrocities of fan-written garbage to find a sliver-of-a-diamond in the pile of unremarkable (barely legible) junk.