For their grand finale, Brisco and Bowler, having been shot by a firing squad armed only with Professor Wickwire’s rubber bullets, have to save the president from an assassination plot by a rogue general. This is one of the show’s silliest hours, with NFL gags and zeppelin gags and talking-with-helium gags, and a plot so slight that there’s more than enough time to indulge in these. At one point, for no other apparent reason than to make our son laugh like a hyena, Pete and Viva engage in an air-guitar noise-off that leaves the town’s hound dogs howling. Even the jail cell set used in half the episodes gets one more time in the spotlight.
Our kid loved it, which was nice, because he tolerated Barbary Coast and didn’t leave that with a high opinion of westerns. But in fairness, I’ve seen at least a few episodes of heaven knows how many TV westerns myself, and there aren’t all that many I’ll ever revisit. We watched a lot of them in the late seventies because stations kept showing repeats – The Rifleman, The Big Valley, Bonanza most of all – and there wasn’t anything else available. I came to appreciate some others as a grownup, Maverick the best of them by far, but anybody trying to convince today’s kids to enjoy the fiction that their grandparents loved probably needs a lighthearted hero like Brisco and a more playful touch than you’ll see in Gunsmoke.
So despite all sorts of critical praise, not enough people ever turned in to Brisco to warrant the network ever ordering more. Interestingly – and history’s done its darndest to forget this – it did catch a larger audience than The X Files every week in the 1993-94 season. Dig around the USA Today archives in your local library if you don’t believe me. Their weekly ratings summary, published on Wednesdays as I recall, would often show Brisco ranked around #75 or #80 of 100 shows, while The X Files was in the bottom five all the time. But what Brisco didn’t have was the growing buzz of the hipper show.
In 1994, every single article in every magazine or newspaper about this new technology of the World Wide Web, where we’d all be spending cyberspace in the Information Superhighway’s CompuServe chat rooms, hyped Files’ younger, detail-obsessed demographic. The character of Brisco County was often lost in thought about the dawn of the 20th Century and its “next coming thing.” The Internet was the 20th Century’s final “next coming thing,” and The X Files was its poster child, riding the wave of interest, curiosity, and conspiracy into a decades-long hit franchise.
Westerns were obviously yesterday’s news, but that didn’t stop an upstart network from trying to capture lightning in a bottle with another weird, winking western about a year later. More on that subject Sunday morning…