Tom Chehak’s “Steel Horses” is one of my favorite episodes of the show, and I was glad that our son enjoyed it as much as he did. Some prototype motorcycles get pinched in order to be used in a robbery, and our slightly skeptical heroes are hot on the trail. Professor Wickwire offers some remarkable improvements to one of the prototypes, including mounting a sidecar for Lord Bowler, who isn’t happy about any of this. Neither is Brisco’s grouchier-than-ever horse Comet, who takes to this latest example of “the coming thing” with hilarious jealousy.
That’s all for Brisco County, Jr. for now. It’s going back to the shelf for a little while to keep things fresh, but we’ll be back in the nineteenth century in October, so stay tuned!
It used to be that networks would order thirteen hours of a new drama, see how it performed, and then decide whether to order enough to finish the season. With that in mind – and counting episode one as two hours – this was probably the original end point of Brisco County, Jr., with a conclusion to John Bly and the Orb story. It’s not a particularly strong conclusion, as it leaves lots of questions unanswered, but it would have done had this been the end. Happily, Fox liked what they saw even though the ratings were not very good, and asked for more than this. So there’s a tacked-on epilogue that John Bly escaped, and more adventures the following week.
Interestingly, after the initial thirteen, a “back nine” was the style in those days, because 22 hours was the standard for a season of TV drama. Brisco got one of the largest seasons of a network show in the nineties, with Fox ordering fifteen additional hours, 28 in all. It was like the sixties again.
Joining our heroes for this roundup, it’s the surprise casting of pop star Sheena Easton as a bounty hunter named Crystal Hawks. Despite what Carlton Cuse and John McNamara’s script tells us, it really doesn’t look like Easton had ever thrown a punch in her life before making this, because man alive, does she ever telegraph her next moves. A few other colorful bounty hunters make tiny appearances in this episode, which kind of feels like a missed opportunity in that regard. On the other hand, there’s a terrific chase through a city street with piles of extras and horses, and Billy Drago’s so downright amazing that at one point he briefly ends up with some pink longjohns in his face and he still doesn’t lose his dignity.
In the previous episode of Brisco County Jr., writer David Simkins delivered an in-joke about Brad Kern being really fast with scripts. Tonight, Kern returned the name-check favor, but perhaps his script was written a little too quickly. Andrea Parker makes the first of two appearances as a villain named Rita Avnet, and it is incredibly obvious that she’s the baddie sending secret plans to David Warner, who plays the main criminal. I think that could have been done with a little more subtlety and been more entertaining.
Warner, who probably filmed the Lois & Clark episode “Foundling” just a couple of months after this, is, unsurprisingly, a great villain. It’s a real shame that his character, a fancy, food-loving gourmand assassin named Winston Smiles, gets blown up because I’d have loved to see him back for a rematch.
Overall, I really enjoyed this one, but apart from the great mid-story cliffhanger where Brisco is tied to a stake in the ground at his boots while his wrists are bound to the back of a train that’s being slowly fed some coal, our son wasn’t as thrilled. It wasn’t just that Kelly Rutherford returns as Dixie Cousins, with all the attendant smooching, but she and Brisco had to keep talking about their relationship and why they can’t commit to each other. When you’re an eight year-old boy, the only thing worse than smooching is talking about smooching. The show ends with the starcrossed lovers heading out on a traditional date for the first time. It’s a really sweet ending, and Brisco should think about this a little more seriously. Unlike the ladies in many TV westerns, most of the women in this series can take care of themselves. Dixie may be a little naughty, but she has a heart of gold and she’s tough as nails.
There’s a great little in-joke in tonight’s story that references how two of Brisco‘s writers, Brad Kern and John McNamara, were always racing to see who could finish scripts faster. The turnaround time on this show must have been brutal, but the scripts were always delightful and witty. Even in an hour with a much more conventional western plot like this one – childhood sweetheart, alcoholic sheriff dad, evil rancher throwing his weight around and deciding his sons are above the law – there’s room for lots of gags and puns. Lord Bowler invents Dunkin Donuts and a mean gunslinger named Utah Johnny Montana comes from Idaho.
The childhood sweetheart is named Annie, meaning of course that she is told at one point to get her gun. This was a fairly early role for Jessica Tuck, who has appeared at least once in just about everything made for American television in the last thirty years, and was a regular in CBS’s Judging Amy for six seasons. There are lots of scraps and plenty of action in this hour to keep our son interested, but Brisco and Annie also find far too many opportunities for smooching. “UGH,” he said from under his blanket more than once.
I had no idea that Tony Jay, who plays the judge in this courtroom story, had such an incredibly long resume of voice acting. It seems like whenever he wasn’t before the camera in the 1990s, he was voicing cartoons for Nickelodeon and Fox Kids. I also had no idea that was John Bellucci playing the prosecutor, but him I know exclusively from cartoons. He had been the voice of the hero, Derek Wildstar, in the third season of Star Blazers, the season that Atlanta’s WANX never bought and we didn’t see for years and years until we were older and copies from a city that did buy it entered the tape trading circuit.
Anyway, “Brisco for the Defense” was co-written by John McNamara and David Simkins and I’ve always really enjoyed it, despite the very anachronistic haircut that Brisco’s old college buddy wears. I do love the excuse that they’re holding court in the town saloon while the courthouse paint is drying. This was a really expensive program to make, and I don’t begrudge them saving a few bucks on a set.
Funny that this episode should pop up while we’re watching Randall and Hopkirk every third night. R. Lee Ermey, after his small part in the pilot as Brisco’s father, returns tonight as a ghost. Sadly, they didn’t have him say “Only you can see me, Brisco! Only you!” Also returning this time out: John Astin and Billy Drago, and in her third and final appearance as the Horseshoe Club’s owner Ellie, Yvette Nipar. Darn, they should’ve kept her around. Jason Marsden, who had joined Astin for the final six episodes of Eerie Indiana a couple of years previously, gets to play John Bly’s hostage in this one.
The episode is written by John McNamara, who’d later work extensively on Lois & Clark, Spy Game, Aquarius, and most recently The Magicians. It establishes that there are – or were – three Orbs, that John Bly knows a heck of a lot about them, and that Lord Bowler is so mean that even rattlesnakes turn tail rather than face him. That moment was our son’s favorite. He said that this episode was great, but once again it failed to measure up to the one with the tank. As much as he’s enjoying the show, Marie suggested that there might need to be an episode with two tanks to make him stop offering the comparison.
Tonight’s episode features Andrew Divoff as the villainous Blackbeard Lacutte, a ruthless pirate who, lacking a ship, has a gang of bloodthirsty cutthroats sailing the Jolly Roger from an ironclad stagecoach in Nevada. I looked up his credits on IMDB, and seven years later, Divoff played another character called Blackbeard in a Nash Bridges episode called “Land Pirates.” Now that’s typecasting.
Our son was kind of unhappy with this one for a good while. Blackbeard holds the upper hand for much longer than he’d like, but it has a pretty excellent conclusion and a fine swordfight, so he came around in the end. We also got to talk about quicksand, because what better way for a pirate to dispose of troublesome heroes when he doesn’t have a plank for them to walk? I really enjoyed how the villain has an able-bodied sketch artist at hand to commemorate all his dastardly pirate deeds, which gave the episode its only real laugh for me. It’s a good episode, but not as funny as Brisco at its best; the balance isn’t quite right.
In other casting notes, because I just love looking at these, “Pirates!” also features Yvette Nipar in her second appearance as Ellie, and Adam Wylie got to take a break from CBS’s Picket Fences as a sick kid. The kid’s mom is played by Janel Moloney, who Marie recognized from The West Wing.
Takes a little bit of moxie to call your episode “Riverboat” when it doesn’t actually have a real riverboat in it. The only ones that we see are a matte painting and some library footage!
Well, I think our son forgave me for last night’s frightfest. “That was REALLY good,” he volunteered, after 45 minutes of Brisco, dressing quite a lot like Bret Maverick, pulls off a con that includes a crooked card game and a fixed fight in order to get an untouchable bad guy played by Xander Berkeley into position for a great sting. And then Dixie Cousins arrives in town like a bomb going off, disrupting everybody’s schemes. There’s not a lot of comedy this time, but between all the fisticuffs and our heroes being two steps ahead of their opponent, our kid liked this one a lot. He did, however, qualify that it still wasn’t as great as “No Man’s Land,” because that one had a tank in it.