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.
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Jason Henninger often forgets how much he likes westerns.