Ah, a western with a sci-fi theme, a square jawed protagonist, witty dialogue, the timeslot from hell on Friday nights on Fox, canceled before its time and unable to tie up to any sort of conclusion. "Firefly," I'd like you to meet your goofy uncle: "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr."
It debuted in 1993 on Fridays at 8 p.m. in Fox's infamous Friday night death slot, just before "The X-Files," which also debuted that year. "The X-Files" went on to run for longer than any American sci-fi show in history at the time, while "Brisco County Jr." got put down after a single season. Fox put "M.A.N.T.I.S." in its timeslot the next season, then "Strange Luck," then "Sliders," then "The Visitor." It says something (perhaps only about how many traumatic repressed memories I must harbor) that I watched "The X-Files" religiously all those years and yet do not remember a single thing about any of this endless parade of genre shows other than the magnificence of "Brisco County Jr."
Humor defined the show more than anything else, a tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic wit difficult to explain without lengthy quotes, wild gesticulations, long descriptions of context, followed by blank stares from those who've never seen the show. It's got that quality of dialogue that Joss Whedon eventually ran with, the one where the you listen for the dialogue as much as you watch for the story. You can read lists of quotes from the show and it summons fully fleshed characters and interactions from memory.
Bruce Campbell simply nails the role of snarky pulp ubermensch, so a priori like bad fan fiction that you almost look around for the character based on the author. A Harvard lawyer, renaissance man, the fastest shot in the west, bounty hunter with a heart of gold, who could out-MacGyver Angus himself and got more tail than Jim Kirk, with a place for a name, guns from his father, and a talking horse. The character is a perfect storm of irritating unbelievability on paper transformed into a grinning nod to the absurd by Bruce Campbell's sheer charisma.
Billy Drago (and isn't it fitting that an actor who's made a career out of playing creepy scene-stealing villains has a name more villainous than any of his characters) balances Brisco as the perfect foil in John Bly: every bit as competent as Brisco, but with a cold and gleeful sadism in place of a heart. Art is always theft, so steal big and bold. He's exactly the opposite of the sort of villain you'd expect in pseudo-comic pulp action, gunning you down in cold blood instead of tossing you into a Rube Goldberg trap. When he cackles, your eyes widen instead of rolling. There's a smoke-and-mirrors element to the absurd adventures of Brisco, since from the first scene of the series you see the darkness after which he's chasing. In a second season? A third season? They might have written a resurrected Bly down to a recurring upgrade to Elmer Fudd, but they might have had the balls to follow the darkness down the rabbit hole.
The other characters each have their own flair. Lord Bowler, who when asked if his title was fictious retorted "No-I just made it up." Socrates Poole, a first-generation Giles. Pete ("nobody touches Pete's piece"), so entertainly stupid a villain that a lobotomy would probably make him smarter. Dixie Cousins, brains and looks enough to make even Brisco sputter.
The production values were straight out of the B-movies from which Bruce Campbell had been conjured, looking in retrospect more like one of those syndicated genre shows that dominated the nineties: "Hercules," "Xena," even Campbell's other eventual vehicle "Jack of All Trades." The cheesy production doesn't hurt it too much; after all, a western with elements of science fiction can get away with a lot lower budget than most genre fiction. It doesn't look particularly dated, just low-budget in places. Both the weakest and strongest part of the show is Brisco's repeated interest in finding "the coming thing," i.e. new and interesting developments out on the frontier. When it works, it's a hilarious combination of retrospective commentary and off the wall humor. When it doesn't, it drags mightily (like when Brisco invents fingerprint identification).
The show lives on with bizarre bits of trivia. The soaring instrumental played during sports on NBC? Brisco's theme song. Lord Bowler's signature Mare's Leg rifle he wears in a sheath on his back like a sword? It's the same one carried by Zoe in "Firefly." I don't mean just that it's the same type of rifle, it's actually the same prop, used on both shows.
So is it worth picking up the DVD set that was released back in 2006? If you enjoyed the show while it was on the air, I thought it was worth it. "Brisco County Jr." rarely shows up anywhere in syndication so I hadn't seen a minute of it since it disappeared off the airwaves in 1994. Bruce Campbell contributes some commentary tracks which are entertaining if you like the man with the chin (and if you don't, it's odd you'd ever consider picking this series up anyway). If you didn't see it when it initially ran, you still might find it entertaining. Smooth is smooth, baby.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Pete - weren't you killed in a gunfight?" -Brisco
"I was only gut shot. I healed. I'm stronger now with less appetite." -Pete
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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