Thursday, April 10, 2014

Show Review: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr


Few shows have presented me with such a pleasant surprise as The Adventures of Brisco County Junior. Coming fresh off the heels of my introduction to The Wild Wild West and hungry for more Weird West, I came across this little gem on Amazon which had fairly positive reviews and decided to give it a whirl. Bought on a gamble in 2013 as a Christmas gift "for the family", it ended up being watched only by me. Huh, what an odd coincidence.

Wow, was this some of the best thirty dollars I ever spent. Made in 1993-94 it aired for 27 episodes on Fox before cancellation. Dangit Fox, what is it with you and cancelling good shows? First this, then Firefly, then Terra Nova, who's next? What did good shows ever do to you?

Anyway, here's the synopsis: The year is 1893 and Marshal Brisco County Senior, reputed to be the most awesome lawman that has set foot on American soil and played by Lee Ermey before he became super famous is laying down the law. The Marshal has successfully captured the most notorious outlaw in the West, the dastardly John Bly and his twelve top men. Loaded onto an armored train headed for civilization an absolutely hilarious trick is used by other bad guys to stop the train and free the prisoners. As Brisco Senior busts open the door to the armored train car he is met by thirteen armed bad guys and blasted. The rogue criminals are free once more and begin plotting all manner of crimes and destruction, but Bly is by far the worst and the most ambitious. But more on him in a bit!

A group of filthy rich robber barons out of San Francisco realize that things are getting serious out in the West and that they need someone else to try and cut down John Bly and his massive crime group. Thus they recruit Brisco County... Junior. Played by the always awesome Bruce Campbell, Brisco Junior is a bounty hunter and the spiritual successor to his father. It's up to Brisco to capture Bly and avenge his father's death!

But that's not all. At the same time there is a very other-worldly element taking place at the same time. In a mine being worked by Chinese laborers several workers unearth a most unusual object from the rubble. A strange sphere with little nodes sticking out that is gold in color, they take out one of the strange rods and are suddenly granted superhuman strength and break their shackles like wet toilet paper! The government seizes the strange object for study, but Bly wants his hands on it as well. He seems to know more about it than he lets on, and the audience is left wondering what this strange thing is. Dubbed The Orb, they do a great job at making us wonder what it is, where it comes from and what it can do. Is it scientific? Is it alien in nature? Is it magical? Supernatural? Who knows!
Yes, it does look like one of those rubber toys you get out of quarter machines in small shops.
 It's still mystical though!

Okay, time for the characters! Yay!
Manliest. Chin. Ever.
Formerly a lawyer who graduated from Harvard, Brisco is a very intelligent and suave man turned bounty hunter. Played by the invariably amazing Bruce Campbell this character is amazingly fun.  Hired by the robber barons to crack down on the crime in the area on their payroll he also has his own personal reasons, that of avenging the death of his father. Brisco actually has a complex relationship with his father. The two weren't terribly close as the Senior was always away from home tracking down bad guys, creating a strained relationship. While not angry per se, he has trouble mustering tears for his passed father but still mourns his passing.

Being a cowboy Brisco of course has all the standard marks of his trade, being a good shot with his father's inherited Single Action Army revolver with a gorgeously carved ivory grip, a nice hat, a good pair of punching fists and an awesome horse, Comet. Brisco's knowledge delves into everything from science, chemistry, history, law and even a bit of philosophy, making him quite the scholar. He is of course a woman magnet but doesn't come across as a creep and really appears to have a respect for women. One of his recurring traits is his looking for "The Coming Thing." With the turn of the century approaching and his sharp intellect he knows that times are changing quickly, and that one or more game changing elements are coming along that will distort the world as he knows it. This plays in heavily with the many scifi and steampunk elements he deals with in the series.

And of course he's funny as heck. You can tell he's having a ball with this roll. The writers do an amazing job of making him smart, funny, tough and likable all at the same time. His quick wit, chiseled jaw and excellent delivery makes him a pure pleasure to watch. One of the men involved in the creation of the show said Campbell "was just one of those collisions between an actor and a script that was just perfect ... I can't imagine Brisco having ever existed without him."

The tricks he can do with his revolver are only barely short of absurd, and even then they are almost impossible. Yet somehow you never really have a problem with it, as it plays along with the goofy elements. His horse Comet is a very entertaining compliment to his character, as Comet actually believes he is a human! He often comes inside buildings to pester Brisco for his favorite food, green apples. It's actually very fun when bad guys use them to get Comet's temporary help! It is clear though that the horse has far above average horse intelligence, as at one point he was shown to be capable of reading and even opening a safe! How the devil he did that without hands is beyond me, but it sure made me laugh!

 How could you not trust a guy with a face like that?
Then we have our main villain, John Bly, played by Billy Drago, and wow he fits this role like a hand in a glove. Seriously, I've never seen a more naturally looking villain than Billy Drago. I mean, look at that guy! I don't think he's even wearing makeup. It's like he just put on the outfit and boom! Instant villain. I think I might have made a squeak of pleasure when he's first revealed, because this actor is just perfect for this role. He is a very mysterious but very deadly adversary with all manner of very well thought out plans, but he is very fixated on acquiring The Orb. He's a slimy, creepy and intimidating bad guy that you wouldn't want to sit next to on a bus, let alone fight him.

He goes out of his way to be cruel and has a sadistic streak that puts even his own employees on edge. In the pilot he states his desire to take over the entire United States, which I concede I scoffed at initially. But as we see what he's capable of in both intelligence and planning and learn more about The Orb we begin to find the possibility of him taking over to be frighteningly real!

We find out some very spooky things about this character, and I shan't spoil it for those of you who are interested.

I suspect that he punches mountain lions in the face for relaxation.
Here we have Lord Bowler, a grizzled six and a half foot tall bounty hunter with a very colorful past, everything from Army service to having been raised in an unspecified Indian tribe, Bowler is my favorite character in the series. Initially he's Brisco's primary rival in the bounty hunting business and often the next in line when people want a job done. In his first appearance he attempts to intimidate Brisco into leaving his job entirely in a rather over the top manner, but his irritation is understandable. He's in it for the money, and with Brisco Senior around he was barely able to put food on the table. So for a good while the two butt heads with each other and are in direct competition.

To be honest though, the way he was handled in the first few episodes really bothered me. I could tell right away that he was being used as a fall-man to try and make Brisco look more heroic. Initially Bowler was shown as an incompetent, easily outwitted and luckless bounty hunter who really poses no threat to Brisco and is only an irritation. And that really sat poorly with me. A bounty hunter is supposed to be hard core, and a rival should be someone who can stand on even ground and present a threat.

I'm very happy to say though that this didn't last long. Many shows stagger on the first few episodes while trying to find their footing. I think the writers, who are darned good, quickly realized this flaw and corrected it, because very shortly after he's shown to be a very confident and dangerous opponent. As he darned well should be. We see that while he isn't a scholar like Briso he is a very practical and talented man who's skill sets allow him to compete and match our primary hero.

Bowler has a very tough exterior and a passionate rage, making him quite a sight when he gets thoroughly stirred up. I recall in particular one time he was tracking Brisco's trail on hands and knees and crawled up face to face with a rattlesnake. Instead of backing off and avoiding it, he then proceeded to bombard the reptile with such an intense stream of insults that the thing turned around and slithered off in fear! An astounding feat considering they don't have ears!

Although he's a legitimate tough guy he does have a softer side that doesn't feel like pointless pandering. Quite the contrary, he does have moments that are genuinely sweet. Over time he and Brisco become reluctant partners, and grow to be great friends. They compliment each other wonderfully and neither feels like a sidekick. Both bring their different skills to the table which makes them a very effective team. Alone they're imposing. Together they're amazing. In fact, Bowler has one skill that positively mystifies the already impressive Brisco: His tracking! In one episode he simply looks at a set of tracks and tells Brisco that a black bear passed that morning and was going to have a pair of twins! I love his following line: "Dirt talks to me Brisco."

He also has an awesome sawed off shotgun, although he doesn't get as much use out of it as I'd like. He's a good fist fighter and a darned good friend to have on your team. Another fun thing is that later in the season Bowler has racked up so many bounties in the partnership that he actually purchases a huge mansion, a crystal glassware collection and even a butler named Reginald! I gotta admit, that was satisfying to see. :)

You'd be amazed how hard it is to find a decent face shot of this guy.

Socrates Poole is the representative of the robber barons who have hired Brisco on, being a professional lawyer. On it's face he makes a rather unlikable character. He's a stuffy, uptight, nervous, cowardly city slicker lawyer working for men who are less than honest. And lets face it, it's hard to make a lawyer likable. But it is a wonderful testament to the actor and the writers that they not only keep us from hating him but actually make him very sympathetic!

Initially he's the kind of guy who you couldn't count on to keep his pants dry once lead starts to fly, and he's certainly not a fighter by any stretch of the imagination, but when it comes down to it he'll do what he has to in order to help his friends. He and Brisco at first have a great deal of friction, as Socrates is a very by-the-rules kind of guy, whereas Brisco is a very much a laid back and spontaneous man of action. But as the two continue to work alongside each other Socrates loosens his behavior up a bit, growing to bend the rules more and willing to put himself in the field to help those he cares about. He even begins to enjoy some of the outdoors, although it's clear he's not cut out for the wild life.

Even so, he actually becomes quite heroic when Brisco and his own sister are in peril, and despite having no experience as a fighter goes out to try and save them himself. Okay, he totally fails, but he certainly tried. Even when Brisco and Bowler are out in the field punching things and shooting others, Socrates proves himself to be a valuable asset, finding information and smoothing out legal matters for them as best he can. In fact, far from being a greedy creep of a lawyer, he goes out of his way to help reunite a family in one episode, showing that while he can be a bit humorless he does have a stout heart.

Aside from the bounty hunter work he associates with he often works as a sort of diplomat between various countries, governments and official bodies. Here is where he tends to be the most afraid, as he is easily flustered when put under the pressure of having possible war break out. Still, hard to blame him when you have that kind of weight on your shoulders. Even then he has shown his mettle more than once and proves to be a very likable and fun supporting character.

Although, he does kinda look like an 1800's version of Dwight Shrute from The Office.
You'd be more amazed at how hard it is to find a decent shot of her!

The female supporting character is the very lovely Dixie Cousins, a professional singer and entertainer that frequents many locales. Needless to say, she often attracts quite a crowd and is beloved by just about everyone who attends her shows. Don't let her looks and profession fool you, as she is no dumb blond. She is a confident, shrewd and intelligent woman who while often flirtatious with Briso, is often a major help to the group in tracking down criminals. As a supporting character she is isn't in every episode, but she's quite memorable.

Her past is amazingly colorful and complex, which I shan't spoil, but lets just say there is far more to her than meets the eye.
Dangit, not in that way! I meant she has lots of layers to her personality. Creeps.

Anyway, she's a common love interest for Brisco, but his job often keeps them from forming a lasting bond. In fact, far from being a sleep around she's a very self respecting woman who is simply trying to find stability in her life. She is very caring and not someone you want to treat poorly, as she is a most dangerous player in the game of information.

Another character who really helps bring the scifi and steampunk elements to life is the recurring character Professor Albert Wickwire. An eccentric old man who often sits around dabbling in personal scientific endeavors, he is sometimes called upon by Brisco for help in matters concerning things out of his mechanical or scientific knowledge. Although a bit of a goof in not recognizing danger when it confronts him and being blessed with a seemingly bottomless supply of enthusiasm he will throw everything at a project without hesitation.

He works on everything from chemicals, motorized vehicles, a diving suit, a rocket and is even kidnapped by John Bly to help discover the mysteries of The Orb. Outside of that he doesn't do much, although he does get mechanical help from two women who he is now a close associate with. They are a pair of muscular German blacksmith sisters who have a stage performance hammering out door hinges while counting in German, and instantly attract huge male crowds. No, I'm not making that up. I wish I could make something like that up! Boy is that episode entertaining...

Overall, he's a fun if underused character. Hmmm, a steampunky eccentric scientist in the Wild West with wild white hair and time travel elements? Why does that sound familiar?

Oh yeah!

Really? THIS guy has a decent facial shot?

Last and most certainly least of the recurring characters is Pete Hutter. I'm sorry, but I hate this character to put it mildly. I've honestly come to believe that the writers deliberately made him absurdly annoying and pathetic. Everyone else in the entire series is so memorable, fun and interesting and yet we have this guy. Flying off the handle if anyone touches "Pete's piece" he comes across as being an incompetent wannabe cowboy villain. I can't stand his high pitched voice, his singing, pointless rambling and pitiful behavior.

And yes, I do believe the writers made him as irritating as possible, because we are constantly teased with the possibility of him dying. In the first episode I cheered when he died from a bullet wound in the stomach. But no, he showed up shortly thereafter. In one episode I'd be willing to bet money that they set it up just to dangle the idea of relief in the form of his brutal death in front of us only to continually deny it to us. Several times I sat forward in my chair in the hopes that he had finally met his demise, only to have it snatched away. Curse you foul writers! You've killed off better characters than he! Finish him!

And yet he keeps popping up. In the same episode mentioned above I think that one character chooses not to shoot him in the face purely out of pity. There are no words in the English language that can adequately convey the irritation I feel towards this character and what I'd give to see him blasted into a red mist. Although it was gratifying in one episode to see him given the Chinese water torture.

I don't think I've ever wished so fervently and earnestly for the a fictional character to die in a painful, excruciating manner.

I rescind my previous statement.
Well played fiction, well played.
Now, onto the themes!
The blend of genre and elements they bring to the table are most impressive. First thing you'll notice is just how goofy much of it is. The very first thing that caught my attention was how the prison train was stopped in the pilot episode. The gang members place a huge piece of rock on the train tracks with a sheer flat side facing the way the train will come. On it a painter did all of the surrounding landscape behind to give the illusion that nothing was there. Right then was when I realized that I was in for something genuinely special.

The comedy is a huge part of the series, ranging anywhere from the slapstick comedy to irony, witty dialogue and twists that blindside you which leave you picking your jaw off the floor from surprise or laughing until you think your lungs will collapse. The sheer surprise many of the jokes take you by is great. It's actually quite difficult to describe with just words how brilliant this show is in the humor department. It rides the line and just barely keeps from going into complete absurdity. In fact, one of the men in charge of the series who helped with the script said it was to be "just under over-the-top," which they succeed in wonderfully.

You get things like Brisco riding a saddled rocket on a set of train tracks in the pilot episode with everything except Acme printed on the side and him chasing a roadrunner. I wish I could make this sort of thing up. This is just scratching the surface of the goofy elements they implement, yet somehow you don't find yourself rolling your eyes or loosing your suspension of disbelief.

The action is also very awesome. All sorts of action takes place from train fights, bar fistfights, horse chases, but all are given a unique spin that sets them apart from the typical staple of Westerns or scifi. Much of it is very slapstick but no less engaging. Surprisingly there isn't a huge amount of gunplay, or at least not as much as you'd expect in a typical Western. Very few people actually get shot on screen, and even fewer die. I find it to be very tame in comparison to every other Western I've ever seen, so you can imagine my surprise when some people thought it was too much! Feh. Pansies.

I'd have little hesitation in showing this to the sprogs in my clan. I classify this as one of the few action shows that everyone in the family can enjoy without fear of the kiddies getting any weird ideas. I myself feel it could have benefitted from greater violence with more shooting and some signs of blood, but it still works pretty well I suppose.

Without giving too much away, the scifi elements of this series are very well done and set this series apart. There are time travel elements, supernatural powers, inventions ahead of their time like the aforementioned rocket and even sodding motorcycles! This often deals with Brisco's theme of "The coming thing." There are some inventions or actions that are common in our time like drive-throughs and the good cop bad cop interrogation trick. Usually I find this to be annoying, but for the most part it works quite well here. Although the Elvis type sheriff in one episode honestly got on my nerves.

I don't wish to spoil too much in case you're interested in watching this series, so I'll just say that it keeps a darned good balance of all the elements.
Campbell himself said "Basically this show is about the turn of the century, when the Old West met the Industrial Era. Cowboys still chew tobacco and ride the range and states are still territories but, over the horizon, is the onset of electricity, the first autos and telephones. Brisco is in the middle of a transition from the past to the future."

The speed in which the episodes were written and filmed honestly astound me. According to Wikipedia "Cuse described long hours writing the show, including several overnight sessions. Each episode of Brisco was filmed in seven days, so the turn-around time for scripts was one week." That's amazing! Considering the level of quality of actors, cinematography, special effects, stunts and props that were implemented I half expect someone made use of black magic to get this stuff done.

The series pays a great deal of homage and spirit of old serials from the 1930's and I noticed it had a bit of an Indiana Jones feel to it. Funny I should think that, because two of the people involved in the creation of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were specifically recruited to help with this series! You can sense a lot of the charm and spirit here which makes it that much more of a blast to watch.

While very close to campy, I was quite surprised to see that on occasion it can have very real drama. The comedic tone makes it difficult to see the serious moments coming, which completely blindside you. This isn't so much of a vicious tone shift as it is good story writing with a dramatic tone shift. I've never seen a show more goofy that I was able to take more seriously.
Bit of spoiler here, but I first saw just what kind of drama they were capable of early on when Brisco was lying on the floor, bleeding from a nasty gunshot wound from Bly and Bowler comes in, sees his state and begins singing Amazing Grace. I didn't get teary eyed, but wow did I realize just how much weight was being thrown about in this series.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this series to anyone who's interested in Weird West, Steampunk, action adventure, comedy, or just plain want a good show to enjoy by themselves or with family. I have trouble saying enough good things about this series. It's all just so much... fun! With all the crap TV floating around today, you owe it to yourself to see something good.

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