Well, I wouldn’t say this show went out with a bang. For its final episode, completing its midseason of thirteen hours, the producers of Legend finally remembered that they could do something with the third member of the team. Ramos, played by Mark Adair Rios, has been very much in the background. He’s a Harvard-educated and humorless scientist, all business and never smiling, and usually overlooked. We don’t know anything about him as a person. And this episode proves that this has been a problem: Ramos provides a perfect opportunity to tell stories about the bigotry that all people of Mexican or native descent faced at that time.
This time out, Ramos brings the remains of a corpse found in the hills outside the nearby town of Bell to the sheriff, who’s a condescending racist jerk. Veteran actor John Vernon plays the big landowner who knows a lot more than he’s telling about the theft of cultural treasures. Ramos is in over his head, and unfortunately that’s because he’s written astonishingly out of what character we’ve seen before. He’s always been a careful, rational, quiet scientist, but instead of using him in a clever way to build an interesting case against the villain, he’s swearing vengeance and trying to do it alone. Pratt even warns him that he’s talking like a character from one of his crummy books right before that character gets killed, which you’d think would give a man as smart as Ramos pause. It’s a massive missed opportunity. Clearly more needed to be done with Ramos, but this wasn’t it.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this show going in. Despite a couple of misfires, like this one, it more than met my expectations. Legend was whimsical, and occasionally very smart, and I was entertained. Unfortunately, the ratings weren’t strong enough to warrant a full season for the fall of 1995. I think a second season could have been very good. Maybe they could have introduced a couple of regular parts for women, and UPN certainly could have done a better job promoting the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine connections with the writers and producers to get more adventure-teevee fans to tune in. But certainly the opportunity was there for this to build into a sleeper hit if the network had a little patience. But honestly, UPN was in money trouble right out of the gate and they didn’t need sleeper hits, they needed big hits.
But of course, if Legend had turned into a hit, then Richard Dean Anderson wouldn’t have been available for Stargate SG-1 in 1997…
Well, this was very fun! In what feels like a detour into what a second season of Legend might have been like, our heroes decamp to San Francisco for an adventure with Pratt’s mother Delilah. She’s played by Janis Paige and runs a “salon” of bohemians, artists, and oddballs. No wonder Ernest turned out to be a writer. They’re helping a young woman played by Molly Hagan find her family, lost about twenty years previously. Other very familiar faces include Patty Maloney, who plays the Pratt family maid, and James Hong, who plays a man who has purchased a very familiar space…
Well, here’s one for the Wold Newton / Tommy Westphall fans out there. James Hong’s character is the current owner of Cash Conover’s Golden Gate, from Barbary Coast! I was initially amazed that the facade had remained up on its backlot for the twenty years between Coast and Legend, but the reality is that it’s only seen in a pair of establishing shots without any of this episode’s characters in it, and Legend was filmed in Arizona anyway. It’s more likely that this was just repurposed footage from episodes of Coast without Richard Kiel standing in front of the place. Coast was set in 1870-71 and Legend in 1876. Hong’s character has Ernest Pratt’s old gambling markers. I’d like to think that sometime a few years before he ended up in Sheridan, Pratt, losing his shirt at poker, got roped in to one of Cable and Cash’s byzantine plots. He probably had a last smiling freeze frame shot before the credits with his arm around whoever was playing the redhead dealer that week.
Anyway, the plot of this episode was nothing too out of the ordinary – the person who wants Molly Hagan out of town wants her out of the way of a possible inheritance, can you imagine? – but I enjoyed the setting and the characters and the cast almost as much as my silly speculation. A second year of Legend in San Francisco with all these oddballs and a great character like Delilah Pratt would certainly have been worth watching.
As we watched tonight’s episode, “Fall of a Legend,” I noticed a couple of amusing similarities to an episode of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.. In “Brisco for the Defense,” our Harvard-educated pal introduced the people of that story’s community to the concept of fingerprints, which Bartok does here. Both shows also hold their trials in the town saloon, to save the expense of building a new set. Taking the budget issues even further on Legend, Robert Donner, in his final appearance as Chamberlain Brown, acts as both judge and prosecuting attorney, and explains that his medical testimony as town taxidermist will have to do because the real doc is miles away battling a flu outbreak. Three speaking parts for the price of one!
After the episode, we chatted a little about Legend, Bartok, and Ramos disguising themselves as traveling fortune tellers. They use the word “gypsy” at least twice in the dialogue and it’s also painted on the side of their wagon. That’s certainly a word that would have been used in the 1870s, and I’m not surprised that a program made in 1995 – you guys, that was a quarter of a century ago! – would use the word casually, even as they came up with a tamer-for-1995 word, “Mex,” for a bigot to use in place of several other, harsher words that a nasty creep in the 1870s might have actually said about a Spanish-speaking field worker.
I personally had no idea that many Romani people considered “gypsy” a crude pejorative term, if not an outright hostile insult, for several years after 1995, because I honestly knew so little about the Romani people. So we talked as a family about how we don’t need to use the term anymore; it comes with too much of a history of hate.
It takes a while for language to evolve and for people to quit using words. Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith all deployed “the N word” in well-known songs in the seventies, all in different contexts, but while two of the three still perform those songs in concerts, I doubt they’d use that word in a new song today. I’ve been known to sing along to “Oliver’s Army” or “Hurricane” but replace the word with “figure,” even when alone. “Gypsy” isn’t there yet. It’s not “the G word” yet. Changing the behavior of decades isn’t easy. Maybe catching these things at age eight will help.
I enjoy a good story where the attempted solutions keep creating bigger and bigger and more ridiculous problems. In tonight’s episode of Legend, our hero’s publisher dumps a Prussian baron on Pratt. The baron is in charge of distribution of the Legend novels in Europe, with all the attendant royalties, and has demanded that Legend take him on a buffalo hunt. Two problems with this: Pratt, Bartok, and Ramos really want no part of a big game hunt, and the only buffalo anywhere near Sheridan are on Arapaho land.
Negotiations, lies, baloney and subterfuge later, the Germans end up taking their leave when somehow, an Arapaho spirit called “Thunderhooves” makes a dramatic midnight appearance. All should be well, except three weeks later, the Germans return with a mob of gun-toting maniacs, one of them named Gizzard-Eating Williams, all of whom want to hunt this gigantic beast. Things continue spiraling out of control until a giant mechanical flame-throwing buffalo is storming down the city’s main street, and only Legend can save the day…
Give everybody involved in this one credit: they came up with a plot which I honestly cannot imagine on any other television program. This one was ridiculous and incredibly entertaining. Our son says it’s his favorite episode, and that he was reminded of Godzilla. It wasn’t that big a monster, really…
We’ve been overdue a good dinosaur story. All right, so Dr. Science was a little unconvinced that an old tribe, several hundred years ago, assembled a great big dinosaur skeleton, upright, in a secret cave. But all credit to Legend‘s production team, the reveal is a really impressive one. Our heroes and their colleagues go sliding down an old trap door, Indiana Jones-style, into the cave. Our son enjoyed this whole adventure, but this was certainly his favorite moment.
It’s a fine episode, with lots to chew on and a good mystery about who killed a young paleontologist. There’s a great scene where, after breaking in to a business’s safe for the umpteenth time, Pratt and Bartok discuss plans to come up with better security systems, so that places like this can be protected from people like them. Regarding the cast, this one features the second and final appearance of Ana Auther as Henrietta. Beth Toussaint and regular TV tough-guy Patrick Kilpatrick also appear.
I enjoyed the heck out of this one, and not only because Bartok invents a freeze gun in it. In “The Gospel According to Legend,” a traveling preacher played by guest star Robert Englund comes to Sheridan, but Pratt recognizes him as a con artist from San Francisco who had been locked up in Alcatraz, convicted of embezzlement. Our hero’s ready for conflict, but the preacher doesn’t even pass a collection plate around. Apart from grumbling about Bartok, because he’s a scientist, the guy seems on the level. It’s not like hearing a preacher warn against the dangers of science is anything new or unusual, so what’s his game? It all kept me guessing for most of the adventure.
And it gave us a great opportunity to have a chat with our son about people who claim God’s always on their side afterward, especially the ones who don’t like what science might be telling them. He replied how we have to watch out for people like that in TV shows like this, and sadly we had to tell him that this is a conversation that more people in the real world need to have about everybody.
Well, the first five Legend episodes were a lot better than this. “Knee-High Noon” does have some very good gags, particularly the ones involving a Trojan cow used for rustler surveillance, but otherwise the plot is incredibly predictable. Mary-Margaret Humes, from Eerie, Indiana, guest stars as a conniving stage mom who arrives in Sheridan and aims to introduce a Legend Jr. character to Ernest’s line of dime novels, with all the attendant royalties, merchandise, and personal appearance fees. Since she didn’t anticipate that Ernest actually does make enemies while working as Legend, nothing happens that’s in any way surprising. At least we enjoyed the terse, three-word solution to the problem that Ernest’s publisher wires to Sheridan.
Regular readers know that this silly blog’s silliest recurring gag is our son’s ongoing inability to recognize actors. You’ll be relieved to know that when John Pyper-Ferguson popped up as this episode’s villain, Jack McCall, our son knew who he was. He shouted “Pete!” because he knows him from Brisco County, Jr. and then he just babbled and babbled over his next four lines of dialogue because he was happy with himself and because Pete was such a wonderfully dumb character. Pyper-Ferguson is also wonderful in this. Like some fanboys who need to let go in the present day, the grouchy McCall keeps reading Legend’s dime novels even though he hates every one of them.
Somewhere else in this silly blog, I once mentioned those Time-Life books about the old west, the ones with “the look and feel of hand-tooled leather.” Well, Peter Allan Fields wrote a corker of an episode here, including telegraphing a show-ending twist that I didn’t see coming, and I enjoyed it tremendously, but he took quite a few liberties with the circumstances of Hickok’s demise, so I don’t know that he ever ordered those books. It seems that the real Jack McCall was a miner that Bill Hickok had the misfortune of meeting just once. The McCall of this story is an outlaw that Hickok has sparred against for several years.
Then again, I clearly didn’t invest in those Time-Life books myself. The episode was nearly over before I realized I’d mistaken Wild Bill for Buffalo Bill Cody. Sorry, Bills.
Our very early Christmas present came around 3:15 this morning, when we heard our kid shuffling around in the den. The poor fellow had been awake for half an hour, but was torn between wanting to get things started and not wanting to wake us at an unreasonable hour. So he sat on the sofa and got up and paced and stared longingly at the tree and paced some more. Fortunately – or not – I’m a very light sleeper and his pacing woke me.
About eleven hours later, by which time the more sensible grownups in the house had taken naps, we sat down to watch an episode of Legend, but the long day had done its best to wear our son out. Somewhere in the third act, we noticed he’d conked out. So this was a very rare instance of having to watch a program for our blog in two chunks with a two-hour break, and his exhaustion didn’t endear the story to him. He allowed that he did enjoy seeing a villain hoisted away from a stagecoach by a grappling hook lowered from a hot air balloon, but really, he was too tired to care about this. Perhaps after supper, he’ll be more awake to watch something else and enjoy it.
Anyway, this story was written by Bill Dial and has the unusual and not very envious task of making a controversial figure like George Custer the protagonist. They do this by not making him at all sympathetic – his bigotry and racism is front and center – but giving him a sympathetic cause, because somebody in the War Department is profiting by sending third-rate supplies and munitions to distant forts and pocketing the difference. Our heroes work to find some proof, while Pratt is also dealing with some mystery man from his past showing up with threats and a grudge. Custer is played by Alex Hyde-White, who had the misfortune of starring in that filmed-to-be-shelved Fantastic Four movie for Roger Corman the year before, and his wife by Ashley Laurence, who was in several big-budget horror films in the 1990s.
Tonight’s episode of Legend has a delightful guest performance by Leah Lail, who plays Abigail Steele, the talks-all-the-time daughter of a former Confederate colonel who schemes to kidnap President Grant. This show’s principal flaw is the lack of a female lead. Lail would have been a fine addition to the cast. It does feature the first of two appearances by Ana Auther as one of the small town’s courtesans, Henrietta. Auther is gorgeous, and at least Pratt’s inability to actually find an opportunity, without interruption, to spend some time and money with Henrietta is really amusing. Having so little female presence does unconsciously reinforce the stereotype that westerns are all men’s work.
The best gag in the episode is one that literally brings the house down. Legend, Abigail, and Bartok are all attempting to eavesdrop on the conspirators using some steampunk amplifiers in an electric storm. Everything ends up backfiring and the whole side of the house comes down. I’d mentioned Wile E. Coyote last time, and this looks like another typical Looney Tunes moment – or something from a silent film comedy – in live action.
Our son adored it and found lots to giggle about and enjoy, especially Bartok’s new non-lethal weapon, which fires cannonballs of what the scientists name “ball lightning.” The balls don’t move as fast as the name implies, so sometimes our heroes may need to shove their targets into their path, which I thought was a nice touch.
Tonight’s episode of Legend introduces Robert Donner in a recurring role as the mayor of Sheridan, the small town that Pratt and Bartok are using as Mr. Legend’s base of operations. Donner’s best known to me as the ridiculous Exidor on Mork & Mindy, but he’d appeared in MacGyver four times, so Marie probably knows him best from there. Donner’s character, Chamberlain Brown, is not only the mayor, but the undertaker and taxidermist as well.
The climax of the story comes when Bartok rigs an office safe with his fancy dynamite. The explosion propels it through the ceiling and across the street. The sound you may have heard around eight this evening was our kid laughing his guts out. You’d expect something like that from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, not a quirky western. What I’m getting at is that this show is a little sillier than I’d been led to believe so far, which is fine by us.