The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.27 – High Treason (part two)

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…

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.26 – High Treason (part one)

This blog is, I’m sure, full of opinions nobody agrees with. You will certainly not agree with this one.

For the two-part series finale, four of the show’s main writers (Chehak, Cuse, Kern, Wirth) had our heroes round up four of the popular recurring characters (Pete, Wickire, Whip, Aron Viva) for a big mission in Mexico. But they’ve been set up; it’s all a pretence for a rogue general to launch an invasion and start a war. Brisco short-circuits the scheme, and he and Bowler are arrested, tried by a military tribunal, and sentenced to death at dawn.

Until the sentence, this is Brisco doing what it does best: lighthearted and faintly ridiculous, occasionally really funny. And then the tone changes and it spends about five minutes getting ready for the inevitable end. It’s quiet, funereal. There aren’t any gags. There isn’t any way out. Dawn comes, our heroes decline blindfolds, and Lord Bowler softly says “We had a good run, didn’t we?” The executioners fire and their bodies hit the ground.

If only that had been the ending. It’s so amazingly well done that it’s honestly spoiled by the screen reading “to be continued.” Of course there is more – sensibly, Fox’s trailers for the next episode did not actually feature Bruce Campbell and Julius Carry – and it will be triumphant and silly and entertaining, but if they had decided to end this with our heroes losing so permanently, that really would have been something.

It’s worth noting that about one year before, NBC aired the final episode of Quantum Leap. It ended on an amazing gut-punch that had all twenty million of that show’s fans and viewers furious with Donald P. Bellisario. I never cared much at all for Leap myself, but I enjoyed that strange little hour so much, especially how it refused to act like any traditional series finale before it broke its audience’s heart with its final caption, that it probably had me very anxious to see any other show produce a finale that bold. Brisco couldn’t do it, and it almost certainly shouldn’t have, but I have never been able to quash that part of me that wishes this had been the end.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.25 – Bad Luck Betty

I don’t have any insider knowledge about how Brisco County, Jr. was made, but here’s what I think: writers Tony Blake and Paul Jackson had a good script about a town full of oddballs called Midnightville and a finale that owes a heck of a lot to the big revelation about Norman Bates in Psycho. So that led them to include a perfectly hilarious parody of Janet Leigh’s shower scene from that film about a third of the way into the story. And that led the producers to phone up Universal and book the use of the Bates House on their backlot, and send Jeff Phillips for a couple of establishing shots of Whip Morgan in front of it.

(We saw the house just a few months ago in a second season Hardy Boys. Our son asked whether it was the Addams Family’s house.)

Anyway, while this is all delightfully entertaining, all these tips of the hat do completely and totally spoil the ending, unless you’re our favorite eight year-old critic and have no idea, yet, what happens in Psycho and what’s up with Norman’s mother. So our kid enjoyed the comedy and the slapstick and the – for him – creepy revelation about the dead man walking, and the grownups chuckled as the whole show was played wonderfully for laughs.

Bringing the slapstick this time and surprising Brisco in the shower, that’s Annabella Price in the hilarious role of Betty O’Donnell, the town’s incredibly clumsy and very superstitious deputy sheriff. Jane Sibbett, who had just finished three seasons on Fox’s sitcom Herman’s Head, runs a boarding house inside the Bates facade.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.24 – And Baby Makes Three

With tonight’s episode, we say farewell to a pair of the show’s recurring players. This is the last installment for both Kelly Rutherford’s character of Dixie Cousins and for James Hong’s Lee Pow. After saving the life of the future emperor of China, Dixie is invited to come visit the nation, and so she and Brisco part with a last kiss. Lee Pow had only appeared a couple of times, very briefly, and this was his biggest role in the show.

Our son really enjoyed this one, especially when the story brings us to a big, beautifully-choreographed martial arts brawl with about thirty fighters, but I think that John Pyper-Ferguson stole it. As always, Pete is dreaming big and using five dollar words, which people with fifty-cent intellects shouldn’t always do.

At one point, Pete’s been captured and is getting the old Chinese water torture, with one drop at a time landing on his forehead. We’ve seen this from time to time on television, most memorably when Tara King gets captured in the classic Avengers installment “Legacy of Death,” which reminds me of a funny story. I didn’t mention it in the blog post about “Death” because I didn’t want to derail it, but here goes.

In the late nineties, a friend of mine ran an Avengers website. He got an email once from somebody desperate to know in which episode Tara King gets tickle-tortured. He thought about it, double-checked with me, and concluded that there isn’t one. The writer had misremembered somehow, because there isn’t such a moment. However, Tara does get the Chinese water torture treatment in “Legacy of Death,” and perhaps that’s what he was thinking of.

Weeks passed, and, proving that you just can’t force people to read an email, the guy wrote back, furious, because he bought the DVD set with “Legacy of Death” on it, and Tara is not tickle-tortured in it, she is Chinese water-tortured! Time and memory may have elevated the tone and the tenor of the correspondent, but I recall him absolutely demanding that my friend stop holding out and tell him where he can see the tickling scene. I don’t remember what happened next, but I remember my friend being exasperated with this idiot’s tickling fetish, and I hope he blocked him.

It was probably a Girl From UNCLE anyway…

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.23 – Wild Card

I think I enjoyed this morning’s episode of Brisco County, Jr. more than everybody else did. It’s certainly nowhere as over-the-top and ridiculous as the previous one. It’s a slower story about New York mobsters moving into the casinos of Reno, with much of the tension coming down to a high-stakes poker game, which is still over our kid’s head. He did love one of the bad guys’ comeuppance at the end. Rather than shooting the fellow, they use the town’s newfangled electric power lines as a trap, keeping him caught in an alley with sparking wires acting like steel bars.

The episode, co-written by Brad Kern and John Wirth, introduces Dixie’s sister Dolly, played by Elaine Hendrix, who was the best thing about Fox’s short-lived relaunch of Get Smart the following season. The main baddies are played by Paul Ben-Victor, who’s been either a cop or a criminal in everything made for American TV since about 1990, and Peter Dobson. The summer before Brisco launched, Dobson had starred in an absolutely delightful flop that nobody but me remembers. Johnny Bago was an really silly show about a New Jersey mobster who turns state’s evidence but gets recognized and becomes a fugitive on the lam in an RV, chased by the Mafia and his downright mean ex-wife. It only lasted eight episodes, but if it ever shows up streaming or on DVD, you should definitely check it out.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.22 – Stagecoach

There’s a scene in “Stagecoach” which is such an in-joke that I wondered whether anybody not in on the gag would find any reason to chuckle during it, and, surprisingly, it works perfectly well for all viewers. Asked to say a few words when one of the members of a trouble-plagued stagecoach trip to Mexico dies under mysterious circumstances, our son had a great laugh when the strange old man in the party just says a bunch of gobbledygook. But the grownups had an even greater laugh, because the strange old man is played by Timothy Leary, and his words of wisdom are strung-together lines from Beatles songs.

Our son laughed all the way through this one. John Pyper-Ferguson is back as Pete, who has about as much luck on this adventure as Wile E. Coyote would have, and Debra Jo Rupp, who would later star for years in That ’70s Show, has a great scene where she wakes up handcuffed to our hero. He started guffawing early on and didn’t stop until after Pete’s final kidnapping attempt fails spectacularly. They aimed more for laughs than drama this time, but it really worked well.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.21 – Ned Zed

In tonight’s episode, perhaps inevitably, Brisco gets captured and tied up in a sawmill. And our son absolutely loved it. He was so excited that he could barely keep still. What a difference a few years makes. We watched the Riddler tie up Robin in a similar deathtrap four years back and it scared the pants off our son.

Strangely, this episode is a flashback to a case somewhere between this series’ first and second episodes, with a Princess Bride framing sequence of a dad reading his son a dime novel of one of Brisco’s “classic” adventures. I think it’s odd that they’d skip back to a story from the show’s original setup right after introducing a new format. Our son loved the whole adventure and its two goofball criminals, but one gag that landed with a bullseye was using the spoken chapter titles from the dime novel as the onscreen titles for the episode.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.20 – Bye Bly

I wouldn’t say that they pulled out all the stops for Billy Drago’s final appearance on Brisco County, Jr. and the final death(s) of John Bly, as written by Carlton Cuse. The story feels incredibly small and contained to just a few sets and the backlot, and even the film stock looks oddly poor. It’s not lush. This time travel story owes a lot to Back to the Future and The Terminator. From there, we get the rule that time travel is easier when nude, but this only applies to a cute brunette from the year 5500, and nobody else. I guess she makes up for all those male models running around shirtless three episodes ago.

Bly gets killed twice because Brisco doesn’t like the way the first final confrontation ends: with Lord Bowler’s death. Sadly, while the gruesome special effects of the second ending in the do-over that Brisco creates for himself may have startled our son to the point that he said “ewww, I’m gonna be sick,” the second time just isn’t as impressive. That’s because the first showdown has both a stunning fight between Bruce Campbell and Billy Drago along with Bowler’s heartbreaking death. Beautifully, it feels like the character bows out for real because earlier in the episode, he did that thing that all doomed co-stars do a few scenes before they cop it and talked about retiring. And Bruce Campbell and Julius Carry act their socks off in the scene. It’s a great, great death scene. Heck, I wouldn’t wish Lord Bowler dead, but with a finale that sad, who’d want to rewrite time?

With the end of the John Bly storyline, it’s fair to say that some of the wind leaves this show’s sails. There are still seven episodes to come, and some of them are perfectly entertaining, but the slight format change introduced in the episode’s closing moments – Brisco and Bowler become special government agents answerable to President Cleveland – won’t find the series changing its rhythm or tone very much. Richard Herd makes his first of two appearances as Grover Cleveland in this episode. Herd is that guy who was always on TV in the nineties, often on Seinfeld, who looks exactly like Karl Malden.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.19 – The Brooklyn Dodgers

This is the mostly awful episode where Brisco and Bowler are having a mawkish, moralizing, preachy adventure with two astonishingly aggravating teenage orphans while Socrates is solving a much more interesting mystery in San Francisco. They got the balance and tone completely, breathtakingly wrong with this one. It would have been much, much more watchable if the story was focused almost entirely on Socrates and the amusing characters he meets and occasionally cut in to see our heroes engaged in fistfights, hard riding, and shootouts.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.18 – Hard Rock

Something kind of weird happened in February 1994. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman were on different networks and didn’t share production teams, although some of Brisco‘s staff, including this episode’s writer, John McNamara, would move over to L&C a few months later. Neither program was a hit. L&C ranked around the middle of the Nielsens and Brisco was usually around # 80 of 100 shows. And somehow, about two weeks apart, both programs threw a hail mary to try and get a few hundred thousand more teenage girl viewers and some press in the teen mags by introducing new young men in the cast in recurring roles. On ABC, Chris Demetral showed up toward the end of L&C‘s first year as a street kid named Jack who gets a job at the Daily Planet, and on Fox, Jeff Phillips was introduced as a headstrong wannabe gunslinger called Whip Morgan. I wonder whether this happened on any other shows that year.

The other new character introduced in “Hard Rock” is Sheriff Aaron Viva, who is Elvis Presley, basically, but he only shows up in one other story. Viva is played by Gary Hudson, who moves and points in pure caricature, but he delivers all the dialogue completely straight. The writers make sure that he’s quoting Elvis lyrics whenever the narrative suggests them, and I love the way Hudson never underlines them. I mean, when villains are blasting at you from both sides, of course you’d say something like “We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out!” On the other hand, the thankyaverramuuuuches and the like get old pretty quickly. I’m reasonably confident Marie won’t be pleased to read this post to learn that either character will be back again.

Ah, but the kid enjoyed this one. It had a big explosion and Lord Bowler wrestled a bear. And the heroes invent the drive-in window, hamburgers, and sunglasses. What’s not to like?

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.17 – Fountain of Youth

Until I realized that this was the terrific episode that climaxes with the revelation of the villain John Bly’s origins, and that it kind of demanded that I accompany this little post with this fine shot of Billy Drago being commandingly evil, the obvious image would have been one of the gunslinging gang of hilariously beefcake 1990s-haired male models running around shirtless in this story while comparing notes on fashion and admiring each other’s hats. I’m sure they’re wonderful for anybody with an eye for the fellas to admire, even with their remarkably anachronistic and consequently extra-silly haircuts, but Drago just steals the show out from under them anyway.

This episode is the penultimate chapter in the battle against John Bly, and I remember being really disappointed in 1994 at a single moment when Drago delivers one line what seemed to me to be more grandiose and over-the-top than he usually went. Looking at it again, I was mistaken. Drago was perfectly in sync with what he needed to be doing, and everything he did fit perfectly in place with all the science fiction, time travel, and de-aging formulas in this installment, even if most of the time he’s just commanding everybody’s attention quietly, with a devilish look in his eyes.

The story also brings back a character from the first episode, Lee Pow, played again by James Hong, and it gives us a surprising explanation for something we didn’t even realize needed explaining: the carved ivory handle of Brisco’s pistol. All in all, this was a very, very satisfying little hour, even if Lord Bowler, who wants all this Orb business to end so he can just be a traditional Western hero again, probably wouldn’t agree.