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. 1.23 – 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. 1.15 – A.K.A. Kansas

The most delightful revelation in this episode is that Lord Bowler has been spending his many bounties quite sensibly, and has a nice home and butler in a good part of San Francisco. He collects crystal and china. The least delightful revelation in this episode is that Dixie Cousins was once married to a member of John Bly’s gang, and he isn’t quite over her. And there’s the return of Rita Avnet from episode 11, and she isn’t quite over Socrates.

This episode was co-written by Carlton Cuse, John McNamara, and Brad Kern, and finally, inevitably, has Brisco’s occasional claim that he’s really a gunslinger named Kansas Wiley Stafford come back to bite him in the rear. This comes to a hilarious conclusion as Brisco tries talking his way out of trouble, but Bowler has a much more effective way out.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.11 – Deep in the Heart of Dixie

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.