Oh, no! You just touched Pete’s piece!
Gangster: “In my country we have a saying. ‘If you yodel in the forest, the yoo-hoo that you yoo-hoo will be the yoo-hoo that you get back.'”
Brisco: “Where are you from again?”
Rumor has it that executives at the Fox Network thought The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. would be the biggest hit of the 1993 fall season. They promoted the two-hour pilot like crazy, expecting a huge return on the lighthearted, high-adventure Western series. But a darker and more intense series called The X-Files, airing on Fridays after Brisco, caught viewers’ attentions instead. Suddenly, all the promotion shifted from the unconventional Western to the alien conspiracy-obsessed drama.
Although ratings dropped during Brisco‘s first and only season, fan interest didn’t. While the network was flooded with a fan-based letter campaign, the series was featured in a TV Guide “Save Our Show” article. None of it worked though, and Brisco disappeared off into the sunset after 27 episodes. The show’s Friday night timeslot quickly became known as the place where good series go to die, with more than 10 years’ worth of series in that hour that were well-liked and critically acclaimed, but cancelled before they had a chance.
You can’t keep a good cowboy down, though. Now it’s time for Brisco and his pals to ride heroically onto one of this year’s most hotly-anticipated DVDs. Hey, Comet!
Marshal Brisco County has finally succeeded in rounding up all the members of the John Bly gang, the most feared criminals of the Old West, including the sinister mastermind himself, John Bly (Billy Drago, Blood Relic). Only while County escorts the gang to their prison sentence, Bly and his crew escape, murdering County in cold blood. To recapture these baddies, a group of super-wealthy tycoons in San Francisco hire a bounty hunter—Brisco County Jr., the right man for the job. Brisco (Bruce Campbell, Army of Darkness) has traveled all corners of the West, and is no stranger to gunfights, fist fights, and chases on horseback. But he’s also a well-rounded cowboy, a former lawyer with a Harvard education. While on the trail of Bly and his men, Brisco finds help from several allies, including Socrates Poole (Christian Clemenson, And the Band Played On), a lawyer and liaison for the tycoons, and Lord Bowler (Julius Carry, World Gone Wild), another bounty hunter who is sometimes a rival and sometimes a partner. Also during his adventures, Brisco has repeated encounters with a mysterious metal orb, one with amazing supernatural properties. Bly has a plan, Brisco has a destiny, and both have to do with the orb.
I caught this episode list after tracking it across three states:
After narrowly escaping a hanging, Brisco is hired to track down the Bly gang, his father’s killers, but it’s not an easy start for our bounty hunter. First, Bly sends Chinese assassins from the Scarred Foot Clan after Brisco and Socrates. Then, Brisco goes undercover as a crook to nab Bly’s right hand man. This is when he first meets and romances sultry singer Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford, Melrose Place). This two-hour debut also introduces viewers to a couple of other recurring characters. Professor Wickwire (John Astin, The Addams Family), is a scientific genius who aids Brisco with his inventions, and Pete Hutter (John Pyper-Ferguson, Hard Core Logo), is a sneaky thug who has a special relationship with his own gun. It’s also the first appearance of the infamous orb, which here is referred to as an “unearthed foreign object” or “UFO” for short. A lot of the series’s most fondly-remembered moments are in this one, such as Brisco riding a rocket as if it’s a horse, and not one but two crashing trains.
• “Socrates’ Sister”
As the title implies, Socrates’s sister, Iphigenia (Judith Hoag, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), comes for a visit, and Soc is flustered to see sparks flying between her and Brisco. Pete Hutter and Professor Wickwire both make return appearances here, as Pete and one of Bly’s men enact a plot using the professor’s new diving suit. This of course leads to an intense underwater finale, even if Brisco didn’t plan it that way. Iphigenia is a fun character, and it’s too bad she never came back in a later episode.
• “The Orb Scholar”
Picking up where the pilot left off, John Bly returns, on the search for the orb. Brisco runs into a second professor, Ogden Coles (Brandon Maggart, Living in Fear), who is yet another scientific genius. For a series known for its sense of humor, I was surprised to see how serious this one got at the end, first with Brisco’s brush with death, and then with his confrontation with a villain at the end. The series didn’t get this dark often, but it’s nice to know that when it did, it could pull it off.
• “No Man’s Land”
Brisco and Wickwire end up way off the map, only to discover a town of all women, ones who don’t want any pesky men ruining their paradise. Meanwhile, Bowler is on the hunt for a stolen “battle wagon” (Okay, it’s a tank). As you can probably guess, it’s not long before everyone’s paths cross. This episode introduces the show’s dumbest villains, the Swill brothers. Also, Star Trek bonus points go out to the first person to spot a certain former security officer in a guest role.
• “Brisco in Jalisco”
It’s a trip south of the border, as a search for stolen guns leads Brisco and Socrates to Mexico, and the middle of a revolution against a corrupt general. The search also reunites Brisco with Dixie Cousins. Throughout the series, Dixie’s loyalties were always right on the line. Despite the potent chemistry between her and Brisco, she certainly has a thing for bad boys. But how much of that is real, and how much is just an act, for Dixie to get whatever she wants?
This one finds our characters in Louisiana, which in the Brisco universe is just a short ride from San Francisco, apparently. Here, Brisco, Socrates, and Dixie set aside the usual gunplay and instead create a long con to nab the villain. Said con involves convincing Bowler to step into a boxing ring against a champ. This one is notable for getting Brisco out of his usual cowboy suit and into a different outfit for once.
Many writers believe that any story you want to tell can be told within the confines of a Western. This episode puts that to the test, by taking the square peg of the pirate genre and forcing it into the round hole of the Western genre. Some rascally pirates are the villains here, complete with a wagon made up to look like a pirate ship, so of course a barroom brawl in a saloon ends up as a swordfight.
• “Senior Spirit”
After another encounter with the always-mysterious orb, Brisco starts seeing visions of his dead father (R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket). Going face to face with Bly, Brisco questions his own confidence, so it’s good that Brisco Sr. is there to help him out. Wickwire returns in this one as well, to get his first look at the orb. Plus, we get our first real hints that the orb is part of a much bigger story.
• “Brisco for the Defense”
Suddenly, this is a murder mystery show, as Brisco becomes a lawyer again and has to defend an old college buddy accused of murder. Although some have criticized this one as being overly talky, it does contain a memorable jailbreak scene, as well as a great guest starring role for voice actor Tony Jay (The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)).
Brisco and Bowler pay a visit to Brisco’s hometown, which has become a haven for criminals. To clean up the town, Brisco temporarily becomes the new sheriff, with Bowler as his deputy. The writers always had fun with historical anachronisms, and they’re everywhere in this one, with Brisco pulling over some kids for drunk horse riding, and Bowler dealing with a domestic situation. Also, skinny dipping!
• “Deep in the Heart of Dixie”
Dixie’s back in the spotlight when everyone’s after a piece of key evidence in her possession, which was made on a “recording machine.” Here’s where we get a look into Dixie’s past and her and Brisco’s true feelings for one another. This one also features character actor David Warner (Titanic) as one of the show’s more memorable villains, a quick thinker always one step ahead of our heroes.
• “Crystal Hawks”
A member of John Bly’s gang whom everyone thought was dead turns up very much alive, framing Brisco for murder. While on the run, Brisco runs afoul of rival bounty hunter Crystal Hawks (singer Sheena Easton). If this weren’t enough of a complication, the orb reenters Brisco’s life, as well as talk about Brisco’s orb-related destiny. Here we have the “episode 12” phenomenon, wherein the creators aren’t sure if the show will be renewed for an entire season, so an attempt is made to wrap everything up in this one. Fortunately, Brisco lasted a full 27 episodes, but that means the conclusion to this one is more of a fake-out than a finale.
• “Steel Horses”
Brisco and Bowler are hot on the trail of a gang of speedsters riding some “motored cycles.” What could be so important that the Bly gang would need these super-fast cycles in order to steal it? I’ll give you a hint: It rhymes with “the blorb.” Wickwire makes another welcome return in this one. This is one of the more comedic episodes, and Wickwire walks away with some of the best lines.
• “Mail Order Brides”
The wonderfully dim-witted Swill brothers pay another visit in this one, stealing the dowries of a group of feisty mail order brides. Hey, I just thought of something: each Swill brother episode deals with gender issues. Is this the creators’ way of saying that men, in general, are idiots? You could make that case, I suppose. Fortunately, this episode is far from serious, with some great slapstick action and a silly subplot about Socrates and a royal bull. It also introduces one of my favorite running gags, in which Bowler is mistaken for Brisco’s “faithful companion.”
• “A.k.a. Kansas”
A lot of shows follow the pattern of stand-alone episodes mixed with “mythology” episodes about a season-long arc. This is one of the latter, as we learn a little bit more about the orb, after one of Bly’s men concocts an outrageous, cannon-based plan to steal it. We also get a look at Bowler’s home life, some Fatal Attraction-style action for Socrates, and more unbelievably steamy sexual tension between Brisco and Dixie. Directed by Rob Bowman (The X-Files: Fight the Future), this one has plenty of nice visual flourishes, including a nicely-shot scene at sunset.
• “Bounty Hunter’s Convention”
It’s another trip to murder mystery territory as this one mimics Ten Little Indians as Brisco, Bowler and Socrates attend the titular convention, where guests are being bumped off one by one—except Ten Little Indians didn’t feature a nefarious killer dressed head to toe in black metal armor.
• “Fountain of Youth”
You know it’s going to be one of those episodes when it begins with Brisco and Bowler asking people if they’ve seen Professor Coles. Yes, this one’s all about the orb. It occurs to me that some viewers might groan and think, “Not the orb again.” Sorry, but the orb storyline is what makes this show and its main character stand out. Brisco might have been just another cowboy, but when you put the orb in his hands, suddenly you’ve got an iconic image worth remembering. This one also makes Coles a little more human and a little less enigmatic by revealing his relationship with his daughter. There’s also a funny subplot about a gang of unnaturally good-looking thieves, and a guest spot by James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China), reprising a character he played in the pilot.
• “Hard Rock”
Bowler reunites with an old flame who has moved to the town of Hard Rock, where she plans to open a café. From there, the music references just keep on coming, especially around Sheriff Aaron Viva (Gary Hudson, She’s Too Young), who bears a strong resemblance to a certain king of rock and roll—or a certain Texas rest home mummy fighter. Amid all the laughs, this episode is also notable for the first appearance of Whip Morgan, (Jeff Phillips, Best Men), poker playing genius and all-around troublemaker, who eventually becomes a regular fixture in Brisco’s adventures.
• “Brooklyn Dodgers”
Brisco and Bowler end up escorting two precocious orphans to San Francisco, where a huge inheritance awaits them. With the exception of some fights against Irish gangsters after the tykes, the plot here is mostly cutesy kids stuff, making this the weakest episode of the series. On the plus side, Buffy fans will be happy to see a young Mercedes “Harmony” McNab as one of the orphans, and any Garth Ennis fans watching will just about faint when an Irish killer introduces reveals his name is “Tommy Monaghan.”
• “Bye Bly”
The orb. John Bly. Brisco’s destiny. It all comes together in this episode, along with a French safecracker, secretive government agents, and a nude female time traveler. There’s a complex, twisty-turny plot to follow, but stick with it, because the payoff is huge. Drago delivers another cold-hearted performance as Bly, proving to be quite the evenly-matched nemesis for Brisco. On the negative side, this one recreates a scene from an earlier episode, but with different dialogue. We should expect better from a series that sticks so well to its own continuity.
• “Ned Zed”
One of my favorite episodes. After the head-spinning orb plot went overboard in the previous episode, this one gets back to good old-fashioned adventure storytelling. By using a framing device of a father reading a “dime novel” about Brisco to his son, the creators are able to make this one a little more outrageous and over-the-top than usual. There’s a great villain in this one, too—Frenchie Bearpaux, a man who replaced his severed hand with a bear’s paw, complete with razor-sharp claws. Ash would be impressed.
Brisco is hired by his new employers to escort a British female spy named Emma to Mexico aboard a stagecoach filled with quirky characters. These include a coach driver with similarities to a New York cabbie, and an “herbalist” played none other than counterculture legend Timothy Leary. Pete Hutter shows up again after a long absence, with a funny throwback to the first episode.
• “Wild Card”
While chasing some bandits, Brisco and Bowler end up in a small town lined with electric lights advertising a haven for gambling and casinos. Just what sort of town is this “Reno” place, anyway? It’s here that Brisco learns Dixie has a sister, Dolly. The sisters have gotten themselves into trouble, and it’s up to our cowboy heroes to help them out, of course. Whip Morgan is back in this one, and he gets awfully flirty with Dixie.
• “And Baby Makes Three”
Pete Hutter returns for more squirrelly fun, leaving a surprise package for Dixie. This sets a chain of events in action that leads to Brisco and pals under attack by the Black Lotus gang, another gaggle of Chinese martial artists. Soon enough, everyone is kung fu fighting. Along the way, we get to see a new side of Dixie’s personality, and we learn the tragic story of Brisco’s mother. James Hong is back for another guest spot, and Whip further establishes himself as a series regular.
• “Bad Luck Betty”
Socrates is kidnapped, in the middle of his own birthday party, no less. Brisco, Bowler and Whip track his trail to Midnightville, a town filled with superstitious residents and numerous references to Hitchcock films. In fact, this episode was filmed at Universal Studios in Hollywood, allowing the characters to visit a very familiar-looking Hitchcockian motel.
• “High Treason” Parts One and Two
If Brisco County Jr. were a comic book, this two-part season finale would be the big crossover event. To prove themselves innocent of treason charges, Brisco and Bowler round up a small army of guest stars from previous episodes, including Whip, Wickwire, Pete, and even the hip-gyrating Aaron Viva. All these characters team up and square off against a gang of NFL players turned cowboy bounty hunters, led by Terry Bradshaw. Although the series was on its last legs by this time, no expense was spared on these final two episodes, giving them an epic, blockbuster feel. There’ll probably never be a Brisco movie, but watching these back to back are pretty close. Before it’s all over, you’ll see Wickwire’s stairway to heaven, a cappella dueling banjoes, a ruthless kidnapping plot, and Brisco and Bowler’s final moments—in front of a firing squad.
Put any one of these eight discs into your machine and within seconds, you hear the theme song. Composed by Randy Edelman (Ghostbusters II), the theme is a rousing and catchy one, evocative of both classic Westerns and modern action blockbusters, and it perfectly sets the mood for what’s to come. (Never mind the fact that this same theme was played constantly during the most recent winter Olympics.) Brisco owes a lot to the old-time Saturday matinee serials, using its act breaks for wild cliffhangers. Continuing the serial feel, each act in each episode has its own chapter titles, many of which are very funny in-jokes about the plot. Cartoons and comic books are another big influence here. Consider the pilot, in which bandits stop a train by placing a boulder on the tracks, and painting on image of the horizon on it. Yes, it’s the old Wile E. Coyote gag, only done in live action this time. That might sound like the stupidest idea of all stupid ideas, but the creators actually make it work. And yet, as comedic as the series gets, it never skimps on the action, which is plentiful, or the character development, which is welcome. It’s rare that a series can be this silly and this well-made at the same time.
Like any good comic book or adventure serial, there are both friends and foes to keep track of. Here’s the list:
• Bruce Campbell as Brisco County Jr.
“Now this is the coming thing.”
Are you a Bruce Campbell fan? If so, I have good news for you. This set is 27 hours (plus extras) of pure, non-stop, unfiltered, 100 percent Bruce. Everything you like about this guy and his onscreen persona is here in full force. He does the cocky tough guy swagger with ease, and he can throw punches, ride horses, and shoot outlaws as if it’s second nature. He also has a knack for making even the cheesiest of lines work. When Brisco opens his hotel door, thinking it’s his room service, he finds a gang of Chinese assassins ready to do him in. His response: “I didn’t order Chinese.” It takes a gifted actor to pull off that joke without overdoing it, or unnecessarily winking at the audience. When Bruce Campbell says it, it’s funny, but we also accept that it’s something the character would actually say in that situation. How does he do this? It’s because of the earnestness he brings to the role. No matter how weird or screwy the series gets, there’s never any question that Bruce is Brisco.
But Bruce’s performance here is more than just a comedy one. We learn in the first episode that Brisco gave up his cushy job as a lawyer to explore the West, because he’s in search of “the coming thing.” This concept is carried throughout the entire series. The “coming thing” is that which represents to the future. When you and I think of the Old West, we normally consider it as the past. But for Brisco, the West represents the future. It’s unexplored land, rife with endless possibilities. Brisco’s quest might be to find John Bly and the orb, but it’s really a quest for anything futuristic, such as new technologies or new ways of thinking. As noted in the episode list above, there are numerous anachronisms scattered throughout the series. These are the writers having fun with us, of course, but they also represent how Brisco is very much a man ahead of his time.
• Julius Carry as Lord Bowler
“You little law book-reading, robber baron butt-kissing, Brisco-hiding sissy, you tell me!”
Bowler’s arc through the series is a fairly consistent one. He starts out as Brisco’s rival, almost villainous, threatening to blow up Brisco with dynamite on their first meeting. As their paths keep crossing, though, they end up as reluctant partners, and, ultimately, as friends. If Brisco is the educated problem solver here, then Bowler is the muscle, charging headlong into any situation with sawed off shotguns a-blazing. Always the tough guy, Bowler fills a crucial role in the series. After all, someone has to fill in for the audience and say lines like, “Are you crazy? That plan will never work.” He can be a scary guy, with a constant scowl and fiery glare. But during those few times when he lets his guard down and lets us hear his distinctive laugh, we get a sense of how much of a nice guy Bowler really is.
• Christian Clemenson as Socrates Poole
“By permission of the general’s staff in Washington, I will be aiding in the defense. I brought my own chair.”
Watching the pilot, I get the sense that Socrates was originally intended to at Brisco’s side during his adventures, with that honor eventually going to Bowler. The nerdy Socrates is more at home in the upper class Westerfield Club, handing out job assignments to the bounty hunters, rather than helping them in the field. Although he’s mostly played for slapstick and gawkishness, Socrates at times proves himself to be a worthy ally for Brisco, offering contacts and information that Brisco would otherwise not be able to get. Clemenson at times is in danger of overdoing Soc’s awkwardness, but he really shines in those moments when he gets to enjoy some heroism of his own. Whenever Brisco, Bowler, and Socrates are in a scene together, they enact the classic cartoon character archetype of the nice guy, the angry guy, and the dumb guy. Okay, Socrates is more naïve than dumb, but the archetype still applies, and it’s as successful as it’s always been.
• Kelly Rutherford as Dixie Cousins
“At least they left you your drawers, Whip.”
Wow. Wow, oh, wow. I have a crush on her. Not only is Rutherford skull-implodingly sexy, but she perfectly captures the femme fatale thing, so that as much as you adore her, you’re never really sure where her loyalties lie. Rutherford’s performance is clearly a throwback to Mae West. And I mean the classic sultry May West, not Rich Little impersonating Mae West. Why Rutherford didn’t become the most sought-after actress in Hollywood after this series, I’ll never know.
• Billy Drago as John Bly
“Here’s to the future.”
Played with pure iciness, Bly is evil straight to the core. He’s unpredictable and manic, and yet always in control of the situation. Drago and Campbell have genuine hero/villain chemistry, whether they’re verbally sparring or just plain sparring. It’s great fun to watch their rivalry play out, to the point where it’s almost sad to see it come to an end. Every good hero is only as good as his villain, and Bly makes for an ideal nemesis for a hero like Brisco.
• John Pyper-Ferguson as Pete Hutter
Comedic villains are tricky to get right. Where does a writer or actor know to draw that line between menace and buffoonery? Too often, villains like Pete become so dumbed down that they do not threaten the heroes in any way, robbing a plot of its dramatic oomph. Fortunately, as funny as Pete is, the writers never forget that he’s trouble, and his purpose in any story is as an antagonist first, and as comic relief second.
• Carlton Cuse as the orb
“Not the orb again. I hate that thing!”—Bowler
Okay, so Carlton Cuse isn’t actually on screen as the orb, but as the show’s co-executive producer, with the late Jeffery Boam, we can put the orb plotline on his shoulders. It’s this plot that really makes Brisco wildly different from any other Western. When it’s first introduced, we know nothing about the orb. Then, hints are very casually dropped here and there, until later in the season, when the sci-fi aspects of the series almost take over, and the orb becomes the MacGuffin that drives the entire plot. Cuse is currently riding high off the success of Lost, where he is a writer and producer. Like the orb, the Lost island is a source of mystery with sci-fi overtones driving the plot.
With so many fans so eagerly awaiting this box set, you’d think the picture quality would look better than it does. Instead, sadly, viewers must prepare for several nicks and scratches on the picture. Colors generally are good, but can be a little flat at times. The 2.0 sound fares much better, making the most of the music and the booming gunshots.
Campbell and Cuse sit down for a commentary on the first episode. As most of Campbell’s fans already know, his commentaries are good ones, with both information and humor. The commentary offers details for several other episodes, so save it until the end if you’re going into this one spoiler-free. The “Brisco’s Book of Coming Things” featurette features Bruce Campbell reading from Brisco’s diary, describing futuristic items from the series. It’s cute, but it mostly repeats jokes from various episodes. The other featurettes are much better, covering the series creation, production, trivia, and where a second season would have gone. The writers’ roundtable reunites the writing staff for memories about the show’s creative process. It also attempts to answer the big question of “What is the orb?” After a while, the guys get a little too jokey and drunk off their own self-congratulations, but it’s still worth seeing. Finally, Campbell reads a chapter from his book, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, which is all about Brisco, and is peppered with some behind the scenes footage. It repeats some of the information in other extras, but there’s still some nice info here. He calls his work on Brisco as “the longest and most exciting year of my life.”
It’s all about having fun. That’s the creators’ goal here, and they succeed wonderfully. The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. is just plain fun. That it’s fun while also being well written and acted makes it a true gem, one that would be a welcome addition to any DVD library.