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. 1.20 – 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. 1.15 – 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. 1.12 – 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. 1.5 – Brisco in Jalisco

Kelly Rutherford is back in this episode as Dixie Cousins, and John Pyper-Ferguson is back as Pete… and strangely enough, watching these in production order reveals a continuity error. This is clearly the second time that Brisco and Pete cross paths, because Brisco asks him how he survived their last meeting. So it wasn’t just my hypothesis that Fox moved “The Orb Scholar” forward to hook new viewers with the science fiction element, but also because by moving “Socrates’ Sister,” which also features Pete, back a month and showing it after this one, viewers didn’t see any error.

This is a pleasant surprise, because I’m so used to the horror stories of networks shuffling around a carefully planned sequence of stories and messing up the producers’ plans (see Firefly or Homicide: Life on the Street for starters) that I’m amazed they’d actually get something right for a change. At any rate, the production order and broadcast order are in sync from this point forward, so this won’t be a bugbear any longer.

The main guest star this week is Michael DeLorenzo, who I remembered as Alex from the later seasons of the sitcom Head of the Class. Oddly, DeLorenzo had seemed to me to be far too old to be playing a high school student in 1990, and yet far too young to be playing a revolutionary leader in 1993.

The kid enjoyed this whole adventure, and laughed like a drain when a coin toss doesn’t go Comet’s way and the horse shows off some poor sportsmanship. There’s lots of gunplay and a great big shootout at the end, but his favorite scene was toward the beginning, when Brisco runs off some bandits with a big smile and a lit stick of dynamite.

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!