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. 1.17 – 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.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.12 – Crystal Hawks

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.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.8 – Senior Spirit

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.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.3 – The Orb Scholar

Normally I wouldn’t ever agree with a network shuffling the broadcast order of a show from the way the producers intended it, but watching Carlton Cuse’s “The Orb Scholar,” you can easily see why they showed this one after the pilot. It begins with a recap of the science fiction elements of the pilot, and while the meat of the story is Brisco hot on the trail of John Bly and having a run-in with an old friend who had betrayed him a decade previously, the Orb and its weird power, and the Jedi mind tricks that an older man who studies it has learned, are on the periphery of the story. Bly is hunting for the Orb, and while Brisco believes it was washed out to sea, it’s very much active.

Bly is played by Billy Drago, who passed away last month, and I think he’s completely wonderful. Years ago, I said that Bly was one of television’s greatest villains and I stand by that. We didn’t see very much of him in the pilot movie, so this is his first chance to shine. I love his quiet, silky voice and his theatrical gestures, and the way he walks with his head hunched forward and his black hat covering his face. He’s a fabulous example of a villain that you love to hate because he’s so successful in pushing Brisco’s buttons.

Brisco is usually too resourceful and intelligent a hero to fall for a bad guy needling him, but Bly very naturally and very believably slides right under Brisco’s skin and makes our hero do stupid things. A lot of this is down to television convention, of course. After the show, we reminded our son of how Carol Danvers correctly handled her climactic battle with Jude Law’s character in Captain Marvel, and how that was so refreshing and wonderful because (a) the woman had nothing to prove to the man and (b) the hero had nothing to prove to the villain. Bly can count on Brisco not figuring that out yet.

The main thing that our son loved this time was a great subplot about the crooked sheriff and his partner, played by Robert Picardo, who has to deal with the sheriff’s big mean Rottweiler. Picardo was probably best known at the time for his recurring role as the coach on ABC’s The Wonder Years, and while I was enjoying his performance as a snivelling number two with barely enough talent to match his boss’s expectations, our son loved the dog, who’s in charge of the jail keys, being mean to everybody. When Lord Bowler gets himself out of the jail cell by hooking the rug underneath the sleeping dog and sliding the snoozing beast across the floor, the kid was howling.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.1 (pilot)

I spent the 1990s in Athens GA, the best city possible to see lots and lots of live music. And I saw some great shows, but never went out as much as I should have, and very rarely on Fridays. That’s because I spent my Fridays in front of the television instead of at the 40 Watt or the Uptown Lounge. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was one of the programs that kept me home on Friday nights whenever there was a new episode.

Had I known in 1993 that one day you could get all 28 hours, uncut, on a format yet to be developed, and take up just slightly more shelf space than one VHS tape, then I’d have recorded them on a timer on 6-hour speed to watch once and collect later on down the road, and go out to see Hillbilly Frankenstein or the Labrea Stompers like I should have been doing. But no, I sat in front of the TV, taping and live-editing out the commercials while watching Brisco County and The X Files and, the next season, Homicide: Life on the Street. Did I see Elf Power’s first dozen or so shows? Not a one of them. But I wouldn’t have missed Brisco County for the world.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was created by Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse. It’s a western, mostly, but its tongue is in its cheek. There are science fiction elements, and it’s very, very funny. In the Maverick tradition, this is a show that where the situations are often “hopeless, but never serious.” It starred Bruce Campbell as our hero, with regular support from Julius Carry as the bounty hunter Lord Bowler and Christian Clemenson as the representative of the wealthy robber barons who are paying them to clean up a criminal gang. In recurring roles, there are Billy Drago and John Pyper-Ferguson as two of the villains – more about them another time – and John Astin and Kelly Rutherford as occasional allies.

Aggravatingly, one character who didn’t return when Fox agreed to buy this as a regular series was Amanda, the daughter of Astin’s mad scientist character, played by Anne Tremko. It might have been fun to have a naughty vs. nice love triangle with her, Brisco, and Kelly Rutherford’s sexy showgirl, Dixie Cousins. James Hong also has a one-off role in the two-hour pilot as an old friend of Brisco’s father. Hong probably couldn’t have returned even if they wanted him, because he had about fifty-two other commitments that year. Busy man.

Our son has been very skeptical about this show, since he didn’t enjoy Barbary Coast very much and that has soured him on westerns. But Brisco won him over exactly as it did me that Friday night in 1993. The first scene introduces the science fiction element of the show in the form of a mysterious, otherworldly Unearthed Foreign Object called The Orb, and the second scene builds to a train derailment using a variation on all those fake tunnels that Wile E. Coyote used to paint on rocks. Seven minutes into this and we hadn’t met the hero yet but I wasn’t going to miss an episode no matter who was playing at the Rockfish Palace that week.

And our kid indeed watched with eyes about as wide as mine must have been. Add in John Pyper-Ferguson’s hyperactive never-shuts-up gunslinger Pete, and Brisco’s horse Comet, who does not understand that he is a horse and needs to do horse things, and he was sold. He really liked Brisco racing to save the day riding a railroad rocket, although sadly he didn’t recognize the rocket’s inventor. He and I rewatched the Eerie, Indiana episode “The Hole in the Head Gang” this morning about an hour before we sat down to this and he still couldn’t identify John Astin!

RIP Billy Drago, 1945-2019

It amuses me to be coy and not reveal what’s coming up on the blog, but with news of actor Billy Drago’s death, I’ll go ahead and spoil that we’ll begin watching The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. next month. Among dozens of roles as evildoers in film and TV, notably in Charmed and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, Drago deserves to be remembered as the recurring villain John Bly in Brisco. I think that John Bly is among television’s all-time greatest bad guys, and I’ve been really looking forward to seeing him get under Brisco’s skin again. Our condolences to his family and friends.