Feb 3 2012 10:00am

Bend Over and Chew On This: The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.

Imagine this meeting. Screenwriters Carlton Cuse and Jeffrey Boam pitch a series idea to producers. “An airplane crashes onto a bizarre island,” Cuse says. “There’s science fiction and romance and fantasy and big stunts and ghostly appearances of dead fathers and destiny and time travel and heroes and villains and wise cracking antiheroes and mystery. Or, wait… never mind the island or the airplane. All that stuff, only in the style of light-hearted old western serial adventures.”

“Will there be chairs broken over bad guys’ heads and lots of broken glass?” asks a producer. “And folks tied to railroad tracks? And a smooth talking saloon chanteuse?”

“Sure will,” says Boam. “And a crazy orb that causes super powers. And a hardheaded tracker with a fondness for fine crystal. And the secret origins of Levis, hamburgers and Dunkin Donuts. And a horse who knows Morse Code and plays chess and a mad scientist with goggles and an airship. Trust me, 19th century scifi is the coming thing!”

“How about Chinese ninjas?” asks the producer.

“Chinese ninjas?” Cuse asks.

“Yeah, kung-fu and shiruken.”

“Why not? And the handsome gunslinger will be Harvard educated like me,” says Cuse, “and he’ll be able to do lots of quick draw pistol-flippy tricks and all the blondes west of the Pecos will want to kiss him in passionate gratitude.”

“Yeehaw,” says the producer. “Boys, y’all got yerselfs a western!”

Okay, obviously that meeting never happened. Consider it a bit of revisionist historical fantasy for the sake of humor. Which is pretty much what The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. is. A western, sure, but a western with a major silly streak and a perpetual disregard for historical accuracy, or reality in general, en par with Peabody and Sherman.

Refresher course: Famed lawman Brisco County (R. Lee Ermey) is murdered by outlaw John Bly (Billy Drago) and his gang. Bly is after the Orb, a strange enormous golden Everlasting Gobstopper knobbly thing with high-tech powers. Bounty hunter Brisco County, Jr. (Bruce Campbell)—with the help of his lawyer Socrates Poole (Christian Clemenson) and his frenemy the half-Cherokee tracker Lord Bowler (Julius Carry)—sets out to capture every member of Bly’s gang.

Along the way he gets tangled up with a wide variety subplots of a generally comedic sort. But be that as it may, I’d be doing the show a disservice to paint it entirely as a comedy. In a sense, it’s like Big Trouble in Little China; the goofiness can sometimes overshadow the fact that, lighthearted though it is, its action is great. The fights and chases are genuinely exciting and the stunts are performed as solidly as in any of the best western shows, with an epic old Hollywood feel.

Speaking of performances, the acting—though often intentionally campy and over the top—isn’t bad either. Bruce Campbell isn’t likely to win an academy award anytime soon, but so what? He plays the part of the swaggering, slightly ridiculous, but entirely likeable good guy in a way that is all his own. Kelly Rutherford (Dixie Cousins) brings the show a healthy dose of sultry vavavoomery and Mae Westishness. Clemenson’s Poole is perfectly believable as a law-abiding and somewhat dyspeptic city slicker. Billy Drago as Bly keeps up his trademark dead-eyed reptilian cool with disturbing panache. What Bly lacks in humanity, Pete Hutter (John Pyper-Fergusen) makes up for in loquacious absurdity. And Comet plays a very convincing horse.

This brings me to my favorite character, Lord Bowler. Much as I like Brisco himself, Bowler wins the top spot for me. In the beginning, Bowler feels like a crudely drawn caricature with no purpose but to be foiled by the always more savvy Brisco. But before long this grumbling, scowling bounty hunter with the best Jheri Curl in the west becomes a really likeable, capable character with some of the best dialogue. He’s got style, too. Bowler’s something of an epicurean, even when he’s eating rattlesnake on the trail. Episodes that are light on Bowler just aren’t as much fun as when he’s around.

The Best and the Worst: Though it doesn’t tie too heavily into the Orb plot—there’s really nothing supernatural about this one—my favorite episode is “Riverboat.” Brisco comes to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to free Poole from jail and take down Brent Bones, riverboat gambler and, of course, a member of John Bly’s gang. Bones holds a pardon from the Louisiana governor, making him all but untouchable. Brisco pretends to be a gambler and beat Bones at his own game. (An aside: Bruce Campbell looks dapper as all get-out dressed as a southern gentleman. I think he should dress that way all the time.) Brisco sets up a fixed boxing match between Bones’ pet bruiser, Dynamite, and “Big Daddy” Bowler. But the fight itself is part of a larger set up, in which, with the help of Dixie Cousins, Brisco lures Bones, in Bones’ own riverboat, across the state line into Mississippi, where the gambler is arrested. The episode highlights just how cunning Brisco is, further propels his relationship with Dixie and also marks a shift in the friendship/rivalry of Brisco and Bowler. Solid writing and good fun all around.

While I don’t think there are any bad episodes, my least favorite is probably “Ned Zed.” It comes immediately after the excellent conclusion of the John Bly plotline. It’s a story within a story, in the manner of The Princess Bride, with an adult telling a child a Brisco County, Jr. story. That in itself is fine, but considering that it comes right after the resolution of a major story arc, I think it was a mistake to highlight the narrative shift by going kind of meta. Ned Zed himself, a bank robber, is irritating, and there’s just nothing in the episode that really matters. The episode that follows, “Stagecoach,” is a lot more fun.

The Big Question: Why didn’t the show last longer? All told, it went a pilot and 26 episodes. That’s one season on American TV (or about 9 seasons on the BBC, if Sherlock is any indicator). Given that the show is made almost exclusively of awesome, what happened?

I have a theory. Suppose you have a show that is romantic and paranormal and a space opera. At first you might think, “Wow, this show will appeal to romance fans AND paranormal fans AND Trekkies!” But that isn’t how it really works, is it? It appeals, in the long run, to Trekkies who like paranormal romance. In other words a subset of a subset, not three sets combined.

I think that’s what happened here. You have a great action adventure western science fiction romance comedy buddy cop story. If you, like me, are the right audience, you think, “Holy cow, this is the best thing ever!” But if one of those elements doesn’t really work for you, do you stick around for more? Probably not.

I for one think The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. is pure fun, and I really enjoyed revisiting it. Even though it didn’t last long, it ended without feeling forced into a conclusion or leaving questions unanswered. Well done. 


Follow the “Rewatch in One” series here.

Jason Henninger often forgets how much he likes westerns.

TW Grace
1. TWGrace
Wow...this brings back memories...

Now I must go find it, and watch it again...
Sol Foster
2. colomon
Easily my favorite TV show of the early 90s. I watched it again in syndication, and have watched it on DVD since. I was so disappointed when it was cancelled and that crappy show that followed it was renewed... (Though I guess many SF TV fans don't share my opinion on the latter.)
3. Kirshy
Can't remember the show that followed it. But I do remember this show. It was great fun. And who doesn't like Bruce Campbell? The guy was pretty much made for the role. I too was sad to see it ended before it's time. Can't wait to relive it through the rewatch.
4. wizard clip
Kirshy, I belive Colomon must be refering to the X-Files. I share his/her disappointment at Briscoe's cancellation, but not the dislike for X-Files. There is (or should have been) plenty of room for both.
treebee72 _
5. treebee72
While I ended up watching and enjoying X-Files for about 4-5 seasons, I remember that no one I knew watched it that first season. On the other hand, everyone I knew watched Brisco. That's what really pissed me off and made no sense about Brisco being canceled and X-Files getting renewed.
Anthony Pero
6. anthonypero
Didn't this show air in Syndication? How did xfiles replace it?
treebee72 _
7. treebee72
@6 - Nope it was on Fox Friday nights. It might actually be the start of the Fox cancelation curse...
8. charmingquark
X Files didn't replace it. Brisco ran Friday nights at 8 on Fox, and X Files ran at 9.
9. Tzwolf
I loved this show. It was a much better example of what a steampunk western should be than the awful Wild, Wild West movie. You didn't even mention my favorite guest star, John Astin, as the professor.
Paul McCall
10. PaulMcCall
"Given that the show is made almost exclusively of awesome, what happened?"
What happened was FOX! The network with the best track record of starting then dumping promising SFF shows!
I recently bought the box set off the Warner Bros. store website for $10 during one of their sales.
Jason Henninger
11. jasonhenninger
John Astin was great in this. Sorry I didn't mention him by name. No disrespect intended to Professor Wickwire!

@many others
I have never been more than marginally interested in the X-Files so I was not aware of any conflict between it and Brisco, but as #4 said, I think there should be room for both.

As I work on this series of rewatches is I often shake my fist at the networks and wonder why they so often shitcan good speculative fiction shows. It happens a lot. That said, shows of all sorts die all the time, and it isn't necessarily a prejudice against speculative storytelling (though it sure feels personal sometimes!).
Jason Henninger
12. jasonhenninger
my reply a moment ago was posted at the same time as yours. I wasn't responding to you (as I hadn't read your reply yet) but I gotta say that Fox does seem to have the roughest track record on this matter. On one hand I commend them for trying out so many scifi and fantasy shows. On the other, I want to slap them for killing such good material.
j p
13. sps49
Like Firefly, I never got around to watching this, partly because I thought it looked too silly. Maybe I should look for it.
14. Joshua A Pfeiffer
This is the show that got me hooked on Steampunk as a teenager. I used to rush home every Friday night and watch my favorite show. This is probably the best article I have ever read about Brisco County Jr. It's quite obvious the author gets the point of the show (even managed to throw in a few inside jokes). And the very last point about why it didn't last really hits the nail on the head. In fact that's the same reason Firefly didn't last.

Actually Firefly apparently borrowed a lot of Props from the old Brisco storage wherehouse. ;)
16. herewiss13
I think the armor-plated dirigible pun ("kind of a Lead Zepplin, yeah?"
was my favorite bit of the entire run. So ridiculously cheesy and
contrived. :-)
Anthony Pero
17. anthonypero
Wow, I guess I missed this when it first ran. I watched it on Saturdays at 10 am.
john mullen
18. johntheirishmongol
This was one of my favorite shows, with or without the orb. In fact that was one of the least favorite parts of the show, was the whole orb thing. Kelley Rutherford was very fun and sexy, even if she only knew one song. Another fun character was Pete, cuz you never touched Pete's piece.

@9 I dont really acknowledge the existence of a Wild Wild West movie. However, in a lot of way, the original series was as good a version of Steampunk as has ever been on tv and before it was hardly considered a genre.
Skip Ives
19. Skip
I loved the show, and I always wondered what happend to it. It's a shame that it only lasted one season, but Friday at 8:00 is not a time you pick for a show you like. Especially in the days before DVRs.
Chris Hawks
20. SaltManZ
D. B. Sweeny's "Strange Luck" was the replacement for this one, right? I loved 'em both along with X-Files, but TAoBCJ is the one I remember the least. I need to check it out again.
Michael Burke
21. Ludon
@7 Alien Nation ran and was dropped much earlier. Then War Of The Worlds got their "Let's make this better" treatment.

I heard somewhere, maybe it was on the DVD extras, that what they planned for the second season of Brisco County Jr. evolved into the series Eureka. They knew that with John Bly out of the picture, they had less of a reason to continue doing a road show.

I agree on Lord Bowler. He stole the show.
22. aranapequena
I watched the pilot a few months back - They picked some pretty scroungy looking guys to be on the show. I'll forever laugh about Pete's Piece - Nobody touches Pete's piece.

There was show where the horse unlocked a safe from the outside when Brisco was inside and Brisco was upset the horse took two times to get it right. Pretty special stuff.
Jack Flynn
23. JackofMidworld
I'm skipping a big chunk of the article (because it's in my netflix queue and I don't want to spoil it) but I'll have to come back to read it after I've checked it out.
24. Virin
Mr Henninger,
I was wondering if Time Trax will be covered in this review collection?
Jason Henninger
25. jasonhenninger
I'm not familliar with the name but I am always up for recommendations. I will look into it. Thanks!
26. AO
@ colomon,

I'm with you. I tried both Brisco and X-Files in S1. I really enjoyed this, but was very unimpressed by the X-Files.

While both shows aired at different times, Fox made it clear at the end of the Season that they would give only one a 2nd Season. Brisco had had better ratings for most of the Season, though it had declined more at the end. Fox of course renewed the X-Files, saying that they thought that it had more long term potential. I'll always be disappointed by that decision. Fox canceled many, many shows that I loved, but Brisco was among the very first.

One aspect that I always appreciated was the fact that this was a sci-fi/western show on two diferent levels. The orb level is obvious, but if you assume for a minute that the characters really are at the turn of the century, then elements such as motorcycles really are sci-fi to them. RIP Fox's original Friday night sci-fi/western.
Ashe Armstrong
27. AsheSaoirse
I remember being a little Ashe and watching this. It introduced me to the weird western AND Bruce Campbell and I loved it. Years later, I would discover a true love for westerns (sans John Wayne, I do not care if that is an unpopular opinion) and a further appreciation for this show.

Bruce, however, was only appreciated more and more the older I got.
28. mistressallen
As long as you're on the nostalgia trail, podner, why don't you have a gander at "Legend" with RDA?
treebee72 _
29. treebee72
@21, Yeah Alien Nation got screwed, but it did get some TV movies and I believe War of the Worlds was syndicated, not on Fox.

Alien Nation might technically be first, but thinking back, it really feels that the landslide of Fox cancelling show after show after show that had aired only 1 season or less started with Brisco.

(sorry if this posts multiple times - having issues with comments this morning!)
John Massey
30. subwoofer
I thought Brisco was a good show but I honestly watched it because it was a Western and not for any Steampunkishness. Hey, what can I say, I read just about every Louis L'amour novel. I also don't recall the time it aired, as where I was it was always being followed in by Hercules. Musta been watching it on reruns, but it did have the same kind of feel, cinematography wise as Herc or Xena.

I don't understand why folks are getting bent out of shape about Fox, let's face it, it's Fox. I'm just thankful they kept Married with Children on for as long as they did, and although I don't watch the Simpsons, it has stood the test of time.

X-Files had its moments, but to me it was more like "The Royal Tenenbaums", really funny to talk about and describe the show, to watch it was like watching paint dry. IMHO X-Files had that off beat scripting that latched the faithful... that and Gillian Anderson.

Friday time slots, y'know, as a kid I never understood what the deal was about it being a dead spot for shows. I still recall watching "Twin Peaks" on Fridays and that was supposed to have the nation hooked... of course it did get cancelled after two seasons...

I am was and always will be a fan of Bruce Campbell however. Since Army, Bruce was always that kind of guy that played for his fans and not for any Oscar. He was who he was. Bubba Hotep was a classic role for him and while we are discussing shows that did the big tank after a short run, let us not forget "Jack of All Trades" which I loved starring Bruce and which also lead in to a show called "Cleopatra 2525" starring a couple of ladies, one that would go onto "Firefly" and another that was crazy hot and we would see on "Mutant X".

For me, I always lay blame squarely on the fans. If you like a show, watch it. Now in the day of PVRs it may be a different story, but ratings are what drives and keeps shows going. A buddy of mine hated watching shows because he hates watching commercials, so he waits for the show to come out on DVD, while streaming the torrent later on the net.. I told him if he quit his snobbish ways one of his favorite shows, "Firefly" may still be on the air. He was the same way about "Reaper" and a couple of other good ones. You like a show, watch it. Fini.

31. AO
@ 29 treebee72,

You're right, of course, that Alien Nation was first. But as far as beginning the Fox cancelation trend then I always pick Class of '96, which ran in Spring 1993 and was a mature handling of college life. It was supposedly canceled not because of ratings, but because the 90210 characters were moving on to college and Fox didn't want two "College" dramas on at the same time.
32. AO
30 subwoofer,

There have been 37 Fox shows that debuted on Friday, or were moved to Friday, and did not last past their first Season on Friday (if they even made it to the end of their first Season). And two of the only shows to survive, Dollhouse & Fringe, had numbers that easily could have gotten them canceled in their first Friday Seasons. Considering how many years Fox has been in business, *some* observers see this as a bit of a "dead spot". If you don't, fair enough, but many do.

Not all shows are canceled because of ratings. But on that topic, only Nielsen viewers directly impact the ratings, so unless he is one, his changing his habits won't have any effect on ratings.
Anthony Pero
33. anthonypero
I get to be a neilson viewer for 10 days this month. Kind of excited about it, I must say.
34. Doug from Tally
I'm surprised no one has mentioned "Above and Beyond", which was another Fox Sci-Fi fatality. Yeah, it had Space Marines being pilots on one episode and ground pounders the next, but I still enjoyed the "nipple-necks" and the WWII analogies.

Maybe someone will put together all the old Fox "coulda-beens" and have an entire cable channel of their reruns; throw in the early "Wild, Wild West" episodes and that could be some good TV for a change!
Stephen Zoldi
35. StephenZoldi
I was wondering if anyone remembers "Max Headroom" starring Matt Frewer...
John Massey
36. subwoofer
Dang Neilson viewers!

@AP keep the dream alive, watch SF like a champion, down with the 16 different crime procedural shows already. If you are going in on one of those shows at least switch it to DIY channel and watch paint dry;)

I remember Max, I still have 2 of the t-shirts. At one point I had a tee for each day of the week but over the years that went sideways. Sexy Excellence was my fav. Went back and saw that show and was wondering what kind of crack I was taking, man that show did not stand the test of time:(

Above and Beyond had so much potential, I thought it would be like the AVP Marines. Another series that tanked badly, not sure it was on Fox was the 'Trek reboot with buddy from Quantum Leap, Scotty B. I actually liked that show; I think I was 1 of the 3 people that watched it.

Anthony Pero
37. anthonypero
Shows I will be watching on my Neilson period (ok, that just sounds gross)

The Mentalist
The Finder
Once Upon a Time

God, there's 4 procedurals on there, and only two Speculatives... I miss Stargate and Battlestar. Blood and Chrome, come quickly!
38. Smart_Alex
@37 No Fringe?
Anthony Pero
39. anthonypero
Unfortunately, I watched the first five minutes of the first episode with my wife, she screamed, told me "no way" and i don't have time to watch tv much without her. Unfortunately, Fringe is not worth my marraige.
Anthony Pero
40. anthonypero
I also wanted to watch the River the other night, but got a big 'ol IXNAY on that as well.

But go figure, Battlestar, Lost, and Justified are fine. Justified has more violence than any ten shows. I personally think Timothy Oliphant just does it for her ;P
41. Smart_Alex
@40: It's worth it! :)

Seriously, the first few episodes were not the greatest, but after that it has only gotten better and better. IMHO, it's the best SF show out there today.
John Massey
42. subwoofer
Am liking Once Upon a Time, but I am a diehard Supernatural fan. Good on Warehouse 13, Sanctuary and pretty much anything that lands on Space. Not sure what to make of Being Human, major cast changes going on there, but the only procedural I am into is Castle seeing as Nathan Fillion(shout out to the home town boy making it big) is on that is reason enough.

Anthony Pero
43. anthonypero
AH yes, I forgot to mention that I will be watching castle for 100,000 people the Week of February 18th as well. :)
John Massey
44. subwoofer

Been watching Space a bit, there's this show called Eureka... am really getting into it. And it is not a procedural crime show...

Risha Jorgensen
45. RishaBree
@subwoofer - Unfortunately they're currently filming season 5, so it might be a bit large for these mini rewatches. :) (Though I'd be all over a full one.)
John Massey
46. subwoofer
@RishaBree- that is awesome news:) Just saw the season 4 finale and it was a gooder, cliffhangerish so they have to make more or I'll be cranky. And yes, I'm all in for a full on rewatch of this series too:D

Edit- and the guy from Max Headroom had a guest starring role in Eureka too.

47. MannieJo
Holy Cow - I loved this show. It was appointment viewing for me, but then, I wasn't old enough to date or drive at that time, which kills so many Friday night shows. I loved X-Files, too, even at Season 1 (it lost me later on).

I can't see Bruce Campbell without thinking of Brisco County. I'm thinking I need to get these and rewatch them.

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