Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. Rides into the Sunset

In my discussion of M.A.N.T.I.S. last week I mentioned how, back in the early '90s, the Fox network continually tried to find shows to pair with its nascent blockbuster The X-Files. Well, this week we look at the very first skein Fox put in the pre-X slot. Ironically enough, when the 1993 fall season started, it was X-Files that was the wild card, while all expectations were for its Friday night lead-in to strike ratings gold. But in a variation on the exact same thing that would unfold with CBS and its Friday night lineup in 2000, it was the second, under-the-radar offering that became a phenomenon, with the first reduced to just a footnote. In 2000, that footnote would be the remake of The Fugitive.* But seven years earlier, the footnote was The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

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(That theme music is by Randy Edelman, and if it sounds familiar, it's because it was later used by NBC as the theme for the Olympics and other sporting events.)

Starring Bruce Campbell (best known back then for anchoring Sam Raimi's three Evil Dead flicks) as the titular bounty hunter-turned-lawman, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. was created by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade writer Jeffrey Boam and future Lost exec Carlton Cuse as a genre mashup in the vein of The Wild, Wild West. Though ostensibly set in the bygone days of yesteryear, what distinguished Brisco was its tone, which wasn't so much campy as quirky. It had a sly, wink-nudge sensibility where it played straight with the settings, but let the characters be in on the fact that it was all in good fun. If I were to point to something comparable tonally, the early '80s' Tales of the Gold Monkey comes to mind.

Just like Gold Monkey (and Indiana Jones, natch), Brisco drew heavily on fantasy and sci-fi elements to construct its fictional universe, with main baddie John Bly (Billy Drago) eventually revealed as a fugitive from the 26th century (yeah, yeah, just roll with it). But while there was a lot of fantasy stuff in the mix, the main appeal rested squarely with Campbell, preternaturally gifted at making lines like, "If I was gonna kill you, I'd be stepping over your body right now on my way out the door," sound endearing. Also, Brisco's chemistry with frenemy Lord Bowler (the late Julius Carry) played like an old-timey Lethal Weapon (not surprising, considering that Boam -- who himself passed away in 2000 -- wrote two of the Lethals).

Although Brisco garnered critical adoration from day one, and the feature-length pilot started strong, ratings quickly trailed off from there. To their credit, Fox had enough faith to allow it a full season of twenty-seven episodes, but it would prove to be one-and-done for Brisco. While there are a lot of things you might look to for an explanation of its short lifespan (audience apathy, the Friday night death slot, Bruce Campbell's enormous chin), I think the cancellation may simply have come down to Fox having to make a Sophie's Choice between Brisco County and The X-Files. Both were relatively expensive shows, both aired on the same night, and both were cult faves more than they were mainstream hits.

The difference, however, is that Brisco was produced by Warner Bros. whereas X-Files was produced by Twentieth Century Fox. I think, more than anything else, that's what did in Brisco County. With an ownership stake in the property, Fox just had more incentive to demonstrate faith in The X-Files even in the face of low ratings (that faith, by the way, was rewarded ten-fold, so they probably made the right choice anyway). Nonetheless, despite its brief life, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. is available on home video today and is relatively inexpensive, especially considering the hours of quality programming you're going to get. Give it a watch.

* Other Fugitive connections: Brisco's saloon singer love interest Dixie was played by Kelly Rutherford, eventually Richard Kimble's murdered wife Helen, and writer John McNamara would serve as The Fugitive's showrunner.

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