July 26th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

That OTHER Sci-Fi Western

You know the one, right? That science fiction western? That starred that guy who mostly only does comedy as a serious action hero? With lots of funny, self-referential dialog? And a great ensemble cast? Only the network didn't really believe in it, so it got moved all around the schedule and then canceled after one season? No, not that one, that one: The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. It just came out on DVD, and I'm having a blast catching up with it.

The famous fantasy/humor TV series The Adventures of Hercules, starring Kevin Sorbo, was only the most famous of a collection of series that were produced by Universal Studios and syndicated directly to local stations in a bundle called the Action Pack. There were actually quite a lot of Action Pack series. An awful lot of science fiction cycled in and out of there. Much of it wasn't bad stuff, and some of it was pretty good, but other than The Adventures of Hercules and its spinoff Xena: Warrior Princess, none of them lasted very long. Hence, the constant cycling in and out, and the weak commitment to the rest of the Action Pack on the part of the TV stations that were buying it. But in 1993, the great B-movie science fiction star Bruce Campbell (most famous as Ash in the Evil Dead movies, most recently Elvis in the great Bubbahotep) starred in two Action Pack series simultaneously. Even with a direct (old fashioned big-dish) satellite feed, I had the devil's own time catching all of it, and I missed over half of both series. The one that sank like a stone, a straight-forward historical action/comedy series called Jack of All Trades had the most promising premise: Bruce Campbell starred as America's first super-spy, a secret agent for Thomas Jefferson spying on the English and the French in the Caribbean. Like the other series, it had a great co-star, and some marvelous (and at least one not-so-marvelous) cameo appearances. But the writers were pushed hard by Universal to make it sillier and sillier, ala what CBS did to Irwin Allen many years ago over Lost in Space. But it quickly sank under the weight of its own non-sequiturs, and all that I really miss out of that one was that it had the best darned opening credits of any show since Gilligan's Island.

The other one had a much more complicated premise, and it didn't last for many more episodes even though it was clearly better. It can easily be thought of as the evolutionary missing link between the original The Wild, Wild West and Firefly. Like the former, it's a semi-steampunk science fiction thriller set in America's "Old West," in this particular case in California in 1893. Like the latter, it had a great ensemble cast. Bruce Campbell, who I increasingly can't get enough of, plays a Harvard-educated lawyer who's discovered that he hates practicing law and would rather be a bounty hunter, just in time to land the contract to avenge the death of his father, the west's most famous federal marshal, Brisco County. However, in the pilot, the leader of the gang that murdered his father gets a lead on something that had just been dug out of the earth, something the government calls the Underground Found Object but that most people just call "the orb." It looks like an underwater anti-ship mine without the anchor chain. It's light enough that it floats. And if you pull on any one of the knobs, it turns out to be the handle on a glowing rod, each one of which seems to grant some unpredictable kind of supernatural power. But fortunately for Brisco, he finds a lucky ally. I'm not talking about his mild-mannered boss (sidekick, comic foil) Socrates Poole, but a fellow science fiction fan turned inventor who, like Brisco, is obsessed with trying to figure out what the Coming Thing is, the next great technology that will be the signature technology of the 20th century. (Yes, our hero is, like the intended audience for this show, a science fiction fan, especially of Jules Verne.) Professor Wickwire is played, marvelously, by John Astin, TV's original Gomez Addams, and he was clearly having the time of his life playing the mad scientist who keeps providing our hero (and occasionally, by accident, the villains) with rocket sleds, diving suits, tanks, motorcycles, hot air balloons, and so on. There's also a half-black, half-Amerind rival bounty hunter who calls himself Lord Bowler who manages to effortlessly combine the roles of villain, sidekick, rival, and comic relief all at once. (I haven't listened to the commentaries, but I suspect the actor borrowed from some of the same sources that Adam Baldwin did for Jayne Cobb in Firefly.) There's a great set of recurring villains, and one near-villain that's more fun than all of them together: an over-sexed dance-hall singer and on-again, off-again gangster's moll named Dixie Cousis, who hastwo obsessions: various plans to use the villains to further her own plan to make herself fabulously wealthy, and her over-the-top crush on Brisco. Oh, and how can I forget Comet? The horse gets his own credit "above the line," as a horse who thinks he's a person, understands fluent English, and while perhaps a bit naive may actually be even smarter than Brisco.

The series has two running gags that are common to a lot of the Action Pack comedy series, and if you can't stand those, this series may grate on your nerves. One is the concept of a character, or a couple of characters, who are way ahead of their time. Remember the character that Robert Trebor played on Hercules and Xena, Salmoneus, the world's first public relations agent? And how the recurring gag was that nobody had ever heard of a PR agent, so he couldn't ever really find his "place" in the world? This show has that kind of gag in spades; both Brisco and Professor Wickwire are portrayed as guys who would fit in better in 1993 than in 1893, and who somehow have a sense of parts of how the world will actually be in a hundred years, with all of the intentional anachronisms and recurring misunderstandings that that produces. As a science fiction fan, someone who grew up thinking of himself as more in tune with 2070 than 1970, I love this kind of thing, but if intentional anachronisms get old with you, skip this one. The other thing that you'll either love or hate is that the dialog is packed, almost start to finish, with dreadful puns including double, triple, and even quadruple entendres, many of which are only puns from the audience's point of view. For example, from when Brisco first met Dixie, and she asks him, "Like the bed? It's from France." "Louis the XIV?" "No, I think Louie was the 9th, but I'm not the kind of girl who counts them." "Oh? Then what are those notches on the bedpost?" "Some incidental damage occurred in transit." Or (also from the pilot) when Brisco converts the Professor's experimental rocket to a rocket sled on rails, and the Professor asks him, "What are you going to do?" "Well, I'm either going to catch that train, or I'll be in Denver for breakfast." "Try the omelette, I hear it's very good."