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Remembering how the West was fun
By Cary Darling
The Orange County Register March 31, 1996

APPRECIATION: 'The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.' lasted only a single season on Fox, but its many mock-Western pleasures can be savored on cable.

Network television often is accused of being as dull as drywall and as brainless as a big bag of bricks. True enough; while there are many worthy shows, the dim mental wattage needed to crank out or watch much of what passes for news and entertainment isn't enough to light a broom closet, let alone illuminate the world's dreariest, darkest corners.

It's all the more frustrating because so many programs which strove for more -- from "Frank's Place" to "Buffalo Bill", "Max Headroom" to "I'll Fly Away" -- might as well have been broadcast to the far side of the sun for the few viewers they were able to attract.

Yet while those shows have garnered critical respect and a cult following over the years, a more recent yet equally deserving ratings-flop languishes in relative historical obscurity.

"The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.," a show that barely stumbled through the 1993-94 season on Fox, stood way out from the rest of the broadcast pack.

First, it was a Western -- few of which have been riding the TV range lately -- but it was a witty, multiracial Western that tempered its fisticuffs with fantasy, its innocence with irony, and its romantic vision of the Old West with an abiding New World faith in the future's infinite possibilities.

But there is evidence that the 27 "Brisco" episodes may be finding their audience, albeit a small one. TNT is airing the shows Saturday mornings, and there are two unofficial "Brisco" home pages on the Internet.

As with current syndicated ratings winners "Hercules" and "Xena", much of the show's appeal lies in its hip humor, which is more San Fernando Valley than "Big Vally" and closer to Sam Raimi and Quentin Tarantino than John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Overseen by executive producers Carlton Cuse and Jeffrey Boam (the latter being the screenwriter for "Lethal Weapon 2" and "3"), the show follows the late 19th-century adventures of Harvard-educated hero and jut-jawed bounty hunter Brisco County Jr.

Played with dashing aplomb by Bruce Campbell of Raimi's "Evil Dead" and "Army of Darkness" movies, Brisco is on a quest across the West to avenge the death of his father at the hands of the evil John Bly (played with slithery perfection by Billy Drago), who just happens to be from the year 2506 and is on a quest of his own for a mysterious orb. Don't ask.

Along the way, County falls in and out of love -- mostly with sassy saloon singer Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford) -- teams up with fellow bounty hunter Lord Bowler (Julius Carry of "Murphy Brown"), deals with bad guys such as the Swill Brothers, gets the help of a goodhearted fuss-budget lawyer (Christian Clemenson), and glimpses of the future through the eyes of a whimsically mad scientist (John Astin).

But the plot points are unimportant. What matters is the overarching feel of reckless fun. There's Randy Edelman's booming theme song (part "Magnificent Seven", part Aaron Copland and as grand as wide as Big Sky Country), the interplay between the actors, and the tongues as far in cheek that they might be swallowed:

Bumbling bounty nemesis Pete (John Pyper-Ferguson) has persuaded an artist (played by co-creator Cuse) to paint a huge rock like a landscape to fool an oncoming stagecoach. "When the stage hits the rock, it stops," Pete enthuses. "Then we pull out our guns and open fire!" "Pete, I just paint rocks," snaps the artist. "I don't do performance art."

Mute bad-boy gunslinger Utah Johnny Montana (Vincent Klyn) has an assistant introduce him to onlookers: "It used to be Utah John Cougar Montana but he dropped the 'Cougar' because he thought it was too pretentious."

Pete holds up a stage carrying Brisco. "Pete, what are you doing here?" asks a frustrated Brisco. Responds Pete, "I'm exercising my constitutional right to make the best possible living in a free-market economy."

Harvard botanist Dr. Milo (Timothy Leary; yes, that Timothy Leary) is asked to give the eulogy at the impromptu funeral of a fellow stagecoach passenger and ends up reciting a crazy quilt of Beatles lyrics: "When I find myself in times of trouble, I say, 'Boy, you gotta carry that weight.' I am he, you are, you are me. We're all together, speaking words of wisdom. Come together, right now. Amen."

Dr. Milo wakes up after being slugged on the head and says, "Don't let anyone tell you that a bludgeon-induced catatonia is preferable to an herbal one."

While the humor may be more 1990s than 1890s, its underlying depiction of the West may have been closer to reality than more serious Westerns. While Carry's Lord Bowler, who's black, falls into the stereotypical role of the sidekick to the white hero who gets the girls, this is a West filled with blacks -- and it's never remarked upon.

This may hew more to the truth than one might think. According to William Loren Katz's 1971 book, "The Black West," a large number of black cowboys populated the West (the first man shot in notorious Dodge was a black cowboy named Tex) and that they "found less discrimination out on the trail than in town, more equality back on the ranch than in the frontier communities.

Oddly enough, clashes between black and white cowboys themselves were rare."

Though on one in the show ever plays the race card, the issue surfaces humorously. When Brisco is injured, Bowler hovers over him, not knowing what to do. "Do something, Brisco!" Bowler roars, "Didn't you study medicine at Howard?"

"Harvard," Brisco deadpans.

"Whatever."

Yet "Brisco County" would be only so much glib ironic hipness if it weren't for the element of fantasy. Unlike many cowboys, who are portrayed as fearing the future and the closing of the West, Brisco can't wait for what's around the corner. He dubs every new invention "the coming thing" and speculates on what the world might be like in generations to come.

Sure the fantasy elements -- especially involving the orb -- veer out of control at times. This probably contributed to viewer confusion and sinking ratings during the original run.

But it's this risk-taking blend of sci-fi and sagebrush that, like "The Wild Wild West" 30 years ago, makes "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr." such a unique, breezy pleasure and makes Brisco himself such a wonderfully winsome hero. The West is just a little bit sadder without him.

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