The Good: Fun, Clever concept, Interesting characters, Well acted
The Bad: Plots become repetitive, DVD extras are very repetitive
The Basics: An interesting and fun series for those willing to accept and enjoy the combination of science fiction and Western.
I was amused recently to read an article about the thirteen (or was it sixteen?) best shows that were prematurely canceled. I was amused because I was a fan of (and owned on DVD) over a simple majority of them. Show that made the list that I have long crowed about included Sports Night (click here for that review!), Wonderfalls (click here for that review!) and The Lone Gunmen. When I had the opportunity recently to pick up and take in The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr. - The Complete Series, the fact that it had made the prestigious list of television shows that had never quite found an audience before being canned was more of an endorsement than a detraction for me. Despite the terrible initial timeslot (it was paired with The X-Files for a season on Fox's Friday night line-up) which one might usually blame for the show's failure, after watching the extraordinary eight-discs it's actually easy to see why. This is very much a niche show and it the niche audience simply never found it, it's easy to see why it would not succeed.
Which is too bad, because this is one of those shows that deserved a fair shake of it. At the very worst, The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr. is an entertaining series and it looks good on DVD.
Set in the Wild West shortly before the turn of the century, the series follows the adventures of Brisco County Jr. a bounty hunter who fights for good and justice while searching for the men in the gang who gunned down his father. Brisco is thwarted at almost every turn by John Bly, the criminal mastermind who was captured by Brisco County, Sr., engineered a jailbreak and freed his lackeys to kill Sr. Brisco hunts him with justice, not vengeance, in mind.
Brisco is employed by the robber barons, personified by his liaison to them, Socrates Poole. Brisco soon makes peace with rival bounty hunter Lord Bowler and the pair heads out into a Wild West that is far more eccentric than history records. Brisco soon finds himself on a quest to discover the origin and powers of a mysterious set of Orbs that may be alien and that contain immense power.
The series soon becomes a race between Brisco and Bly to find the orbs and extract their powers with Brisco determined to prevent Bly from using the orb for world domination and Bly bent on finding the orb for just that purpose!
The series is entertaining and fun to watch, though it's pretty easy to figure that a science fiction-Western is going to fill a need for a very small niche audience. The only thing more surprising than the niche audience not finding The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr. is that the executives at Fox were stupid enough to put another science fiction-Western in the exact same timeslot years later with Firefly. That's pretty moronic of Fox, yet it fits their pattern. My point here is that this is a series that was smart, innovative, fun to watch and well-positioned for the geek audience most likely to enjoy it. How it failed in its first run is something of a mystery. . . . unless the network didn't know how to promote it.
I actually remember when The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr. was on the air and all of the promos for the series made it seem like a pretty pedestrian Western show. In reality, it is not. The show utilizes a great deal of humor - usually in the form of technological anachronisms or pop culture references for events decades after the timeframe of the series - and the science fiction aspects of the series consume much of the plots. The origin of the orbs and what they end up being is very much a science fiction device.
But in The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr. the melding of science fiction and Western works extraordinarily well and the result is clever and amusing. So, too, is the humor. The recurring characters like Sheriff Aaron Viva (think Elvis in the Old West), Pete Hutter (an eccentric villain who seems to get killed each episode he's in), and Professor Albert Wickwire are complex, clever and downright funny, which allows Brisco to often play the straightman and keep the show just under over-the-top (as actor Bruce Campbell says in the commentaries).
While there are only three credited cast members (four if you count Brisco's horse Comet), the show relies on the idea that the West was not all that big and villains and heroes recur and grow throughout the brief series. Here is who the essentials are:
Brisco County Jr. - Following the murder of his lawman father, Brisco becomes employed by the robber barons who want to see an end to John Bly's gang. Brisco sets out throughout California, Arizona and New Mexico to track down Bly with his trusty horse Comet, his companion Lord Bowler, and his sidearm. Along the way he allies himself with an eccentric professor, a dancer, and others who help him hunt for justice while aiding others along the way. An intellectual and a visionary, he is also looking for the next big thing that will bring America into the new century,
Lord Bowler - More than just a sidekick, he is an expert tracker and easily the equal of Brisco. Arguably in the chase for the bounties, Bowler soon amasses a small fortune which puts him living in the lap of luxury,
Socrates Poole - A lawyer and man of the office, he finds life negotiating the desires of the robber barons and the style of Brisco to be an adventure in and of itself. Socrates finds himself defending Brisco when he breaks the rules and learning some of the more subtle rules of the West when he strikes out on his own,
Dixie - Brisco's recurring love interest who wants him to settle down, though understands that his quest for justice will not allow him to,
Professor Wickwire - A highly educated scientist who shares Brisco's appreciation for what the future may hold and also desires to create the coming "thing" for the new century. He rescues Brisco and Bowler on many occasions,
John Bly - The quarry Brisco County Jr. is hunting, he has an agenda of his own and it involves the orbs and world domination,
and Comet - Brisco's horse. He's not a talking horse, but he does appear to comprehend a lot and offer useful advice, in his own way. He also has feelings that are easily hurt.
The characters are well presented by a pretty extraordinary cast and great recurring cast. The show utilizes talents of many fine, well-established actors like John Astin (Wickwire) and newer talents like Kelly Rutherford (Dixie Cousins) to create something that has a very unique feel to it. The dialogue is often loaded with one-liners and none of the cast seems to have any difficulty getting around the long phrases. Fans of Boston Legal may enjoy seeing Christian Clemenson (Jerry Espenson on Boston Legal) as Socrates Poole, though if anything seeing him in this predecessor series makes the case that Clemenson is becoming typecast. More straightlaced than his Boston Legal role, Clemenson still makes an indelible mark on the viewer episode after episode as a real gem of the screen.
Julius Carry, who plays Lord Bowler is an exceptional choice for the role. He lends an instant bearing and screen presence to the role that is impressive. To see him in the DVD bonus features smiling and relaxing is a real treat and a testament to how good an actor he is; his jocularity appears to come so natural to the actor, something alien to the character.
But the heavy lifting of making the show work and setting its tone is set firmly on the shoulders of Bruce Campbell. Campbell has an extraordinary ability to navigate the treacherous territory between tongue-in-cheek and campy. He keeps the series serious and realistic, which heightens the humor of one-liners that could otherwise be hokey (Rutherford delivers some of those, unfortunately). In The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr., he is an action hero with a quick wit that works and he makes watching episode after episode worthwhile.
Unfortunately, as the series progresses, it begins to feel remarkably repetitive. Sadly, in discussing plans for the second season on the DVD bonus features, the producers reveal a satisfying solution to the problem of the familiar plot structures. It seems like the writers and producers understood they had to shift the show from being a constant chase and were working on that when the series was canceled.
The other real bummer comes in the form of the bonus features. There are decent commentary tracks on episodes like the pilot, but the final disc in the set includes interviews and clips and even a reading from Bruce Campbell's memoirs which essentially recount all of the same information. There is little that varies from what is already said so even the bonus features are repetitive. Perhaps the most interesting bonus feature is the booklet that describes each episode as it was written by Bruce Campbell.
All in all, this is a decent series, great for entertainment and I can see it standing up well over time as something different.
For other one-season series' I've reviewed, please check out:
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
For other television reviews, please visit my index page!
© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.