In a late episode of The Adventures Of Brisco County, Jr.’s first and only season, there’s a sheriff who acts like he’s Elvis. There’s no reason for this. The show is set in the late 19th century, and the episode’s plot (“Hard Rock”) has nothing to do with Presley’s legacy or music. The impersonation (by actor Gary Hudson) is about as bland as an impersonation can be while still having a recognizable target, and the jokes aren’t much better. Hudson’s first appearance is liable to inspire more groans and eye-rolling than enthusiasm.
And yet—he grows on you. Something about the script and the actor’s complete lack of shame or self-consciousness becomes increasingly endearing over time. The sheriff is never really funny, and the Elvis-nods never rise above the level of second-tier hanging fruit, but there’s a goofy determination to the presentation that becomes endearing almost in spite of itself. When the character comes back for the show’s first (and only) season finale, he’s a welcome sight; not because he’s well drawn or inherently compelling, but because he’s familiar, and friendly, and because you like him.
That likability is a key element in the show’s mild but undeniable appeal. Brisco County, Jr. was never cutting edge; its hero was good and true and virtuous to a fault, the bad guys never stayed free for long, and all endings were happy, more or less. If a pair of orphans showed up at the beginning of an episode on a dangerous journey to collect their inheritance, it was a good bet that not only would they eventually arrive safely at their destination (after several complications and a handful of commercial breaks), they’d also be reunited with a parent who turned out to not be quite as dead as they’d believed. Every act break had a chapter title with a terrible pun it. One villain (played by John Pyper-Ferguson) was so well liked by the writers and cast that he was resurrected from certain death several times, and even, by the end of the run, on his way to being a half-assed good guy.
Geniality, then, is the word of the day. Eponymous bounty hunter Brisco County Jr. was written to be a Harvard lawyer, an amazingly quick draw, a terrific rider (with a super smart horse), and an impressively forward thinker. In addition to tracking down the men who killed his father, and learning the secrets of a mysterious, rod-studded object known only as “The Orb,” Brisco was also intent on finding “The Coming Thing”—new technologies and advances as the country edged closer to the dawn of the 20th century. Throughout the series’ short run, he and others stumble over anachronistic inventions that foreshadowed innovations soon to come, and Brisco’s response is nearly always the same: wry wit with just a hint of wonder.
It’s a combination which could’ve easily proved insufferable without the right actor in the role. In the early ’90s, Bruce Campbell was still firmly locked in his “beloved actor, small cult” niche; his most prominent role remained his starring turn in the Evil Dead movies (the third of which, Army Of Darkness, came out in 1992, the year before Brisco County, Jr. debuted), along with a handful of parts in low-budget cult pictures, none of which left much of a mark. A starring role in an ongoing series meant a potential rise in prominence, and when it came time to audition, the actor went all out, going so far as to do a standing backflip to demonstrate his commitment to physical performance.
The show needed him as much as he needed it. As scripted, Brisco’s infallibility has the potential to read as smug and overbearing, and there are moments early in the run where even Campbell’s charms can’t quite overcome the “oh thank God the white man is here to save us” vibe. But the clear pleasure the actor takes in everything he does on screen comes through, and keeps the hero from turning into a bland, square-jawed twerp. Typically Campbell plays lovable blowhards and larger-than-life buffoons, but here, he’s called on to be a largely traditional leading man, and he delivers a mixture of steadfast decency, optimism, and perpetual bemusement that is just about perfect.
Bemusement is the key; in a commentary track they recorded for the show’s DVD release, Campbell and Carlton Cuse (who created the show along with his writing partner at the time, Jeffrey Boam) mention the word as a touchstone for the character to always come back to, even in the most dangerous situations. In a darker, or more intentionally suspense-driven series, Campbell’s sideways grin might have served to undermine the tension, but on Brisco County, Jr., his performance sets the tone without ever breaking the fourth wall. The actor finds the right balance between sincerity and smirking—being part of the joke and in on the joke at the same time—and if it rarely feels like Brisco has much of anything to worry about, it’s hard to hold that against him.
Campbell is well supported by a small but lively cast of recurring friends and enemies; chief among them is Julius Carry as Brisco’s “faithful companion” Lord Bowler. The character is introduced in the pilot as a professional rival, but over the course of the first season, the conflict is quickly subsumed by the show’s relentless geniality. It’s a change for the better, as Carry’s enthusiastically hammy presence serves as a perfect foil to Campbell’s comparative restraint. Bowler is occasionally labeled a “sidekick,” but the dynamic between the two men works best when he and Brisco are on relatively equal terms, as the glimpses the audience gets into Bowler’s personal life (nice house, butler, an appreciation for fine crystal) make for a surprisingly well-developed persona. And a likable persona at that. As with nearly every successful aspect of the series, Bowler is fun to spend time on, even if the adventures around him fail to deliver.
There’s also Christian Clemenson as Socrates Poole, the obligatory nebbish who keeps getting drawn into the rough-and-tumble life of the West; Kelly Rutherford as Dixie Cousins, Brisco’s on-again, off-again (but mostly on) flame (the actress was originally cast as a one-time-only character in the pilot, but the chemistry between her and Campbell was strong enough to make her a going concern); and John Astin as Professor Albert Wickwire, a whacky inventor type who pops in occasionally to offer helpful advice and weird gadgets. All three are playing archetypes, and none of those archetypes ever really develop beyond the most obvious interpretations (Socrates is awkward around women and overly intellectual; Dixie has a yen for bad boys; the professor is a nut), but the cast has an immediate lived-in charm that gets more comfortable as the show progresses. The attempts at serialization, mostly surrounding Brisco’s attempts to track down the men who killed his father and the mysterious Orb that drives them, never coalesce into a gripping narrative; but the way the various friendships develop over the course of the season is surprisingly satisfying.
What keeps Brisco County, Jr. from being great, or even consistently good, is that its fundamental lack of urgency is continually at odds with the stories the writers are trying to tell. Cuse and Boam created the show when then Fox executive Bob Greenblatt asked them to make him something in the style of old-fashioned movie serials. Cuse, realizing that most serials were either Westerns or science fiction, decided to combine the two. The result is an uneasy blend of straightforward period action and odd, inexplicable quirks, of which the mysterious Orb is only the most obvious example. Those quirks helped keep the predictable plotting from being textureless, but never much more than that. Even a late-period revelation about time travel is more shrug-inducing than stunning. There is a perpetual sense of a show not being quite willing (or able) to commit to its boldest ideas.
As a result, Brisco and Bowler’s actual adventures rarely have much spark to them. An episode might introduce the world’s first motorcycle gang, or a group of thieves behaving like pirates on dry land, both of which serve as solid story hooks. But bland actors and cheesy scripts ultimately deliver potentially thrilling concepts in the most straightforward, uninspired way possible. Apart from Billy Drago (who played John Bly, Brisco’s main nemesis), few of the bad guys offered much of a threat, as real danger might interfere with the show’s low-key affability. The stakes are modest, evil is stupid and easily fooled, and death traps remain perpetually unguarded.
In the ’80s, this sort of approach might have worked. MacGyver ran for years on the resourceful-white-dude-against-dim-witted-baddies formula. But television was changing in the early ’90s, and for evidence of that change, one need look no further than the series that premiered on the same network, and the same night, a month after Brisco County, Jr. debuted. The X-Files had a similar interest in the strange, and it offered the same mix of serialization and standalone stories, but Chris Carter’s portrait of modern America made for a grim picture indeed, filled with monsters lurking just out of sight, parents who stayed dead, and a government so profoundly corrupt it routinely experimented on the citizens it was supposed to protect. Where Brisco County, Jr. offered sunny optimism in the face of a dawning century, The X-Files promised betrayal, horror, and doom, with only the slim hope of a pair of sexy, but hopelessly outnumbered, FBI agents to save us. The former asked nicely for attention; the latter demanded it.
In retrospect, Brisco County, Jr. seems as much a victim of bad timing as anything else. The Western was at a low ebb, popularity-wise; 1992’s Unforgiven was the most recent big-screen success for the genre, and there’s little of that film’s DNA apparent in Brisco’s bright colors and clearly defined moral conflicts. Despite critical praise, the series’ ratings struggled, and that, along with the cost of production, ultimately led to an arguably premature cancellation. A few years later, or a few years earlier, audiences may have been more appreciative of the show’s loopy, featherlight charms. Or maybe not: Maybe the not-quite hodgepodge of genre mash-up and hangout comedy was doomed by its own uneasy compromises and inherent lack of urgency.
Regardless, time has been kind to the series. It’s possible to see bits and pieces of Lost, co-creator Cuse’s biggest television success, in Brisco’s fondness for out-of-place imagery and magical science, and Campbell was able to transform his limited run as a TV star into a secondary career path, finding a home on the small screen whenever the big one threatened to abandon him. Even without hindsight, though, the show holds up well enough. It’s never quite as clever as it wants to be, and anyone looking for the sort of epic, rousing storytelling the opening credits music seem to suggest should probably look elsewhere. (That theme, composed by Randy Edelman, was eventually repurposed by NBC for its Olympic Games’ broadcasts.) But those in the mood for some low-key sweetness, an always game hero, and just a hint of strange, need look no further.
Wonder, Weirdo, or Wannabe: Wonder.