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What I’m Watching: 2020

Monday, October 5th, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

BG_TVBRiscoCountyEDITED

Campbell’s 2020 April Fools Day Joke

For a couple reasons (none of them good), 2020 has given me the opportunity to watch a lot of video. Of course, I could have done more writing, but we all make our choices… I revisited several favorites, and added a few new shows into the mix. So, let’s look at some of them.

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

This was my all-time favorite TV show for years; finally dropping to number two behind Justified. It was very hyped by Fox and aired back-to-back with the also new X-Files. For some reason, the network stuck it on Friday night, which was a death slot. It was canceled after only one season. Which is a TV tragedy.

A mix of Indiana Jones, Westerns, and sci-fi, it intentionally recreated the feel of the old Flash Gordon serials. Each episode had a cliffhanger going into commercial breaks. For most of its run, Brisco pursued the gang that killed his father, a famed lawman. And that was interwoven with a mysterious orb from the future. There were also a ton of in-gags on ‘The coming thing,’ such as blue jeans, drive-thru windows, Dunkin Donuts, and many more.

Bruce Campbell Jr. was perfectly cast, and the rest of the regulars, including Kelly Rutherford (who wonderfully channeled Lauren Bacall from To Have and Have Not), the terrific Julius Carry as rival bounty hunter Lord Bowler, and absent-minded professor John Astin. Honestly – there’s nothing about this show that I don’t like. They wrapped up the master plot late in the season, and they would have come up with something new for season two. But the ratings continued to drop, and rather than hang on, or give it a better time slot, Fox pulled the plug.

For years, I hoped their would be a reunion TV movie, which was ‘a thing’ back before streaming series came around. Then, Julius Carry sadly passed. I can’t imagine this show without him. But there’s almost nothing I don’t like about this show. There were a couple episodes that were a bit flat (including the two-part finale), but they’re still worth watching.

In the tradition of shows like Columbo, there were guest stars like Sheena Easton (the singer), Denise Crosby (Star Trek), Debra Jo Rupp (the mom on That 70s Show), Terry Funk (legendary wrestler, and more. And Gary Hudson popped up a few times as Sheriff Aaron Viva. He was a cowboy Elvis with one-liners from various songs, a big appetite and martial arts moves. Loved it!

Brisco County planted its tongue in cheek, but it was done as a humorous homage, not a parody. I honestly don’t think this show could have been much better. And as I re-watched all 27 episodes, it has aged very well. It took something as fantastic as Justified for me to like another show more than this one.

In his terrific autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: The Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, Campbell talks about his time on the show, including how doing a standing back flip in the first interview helped him get the role. That book, along with the follow-up, Hail to the Chin, are available at Audible.com And they’re both read by Bruce himself! If you’re a Campbell fan, him narrating his own life story is an absolute must. Trust me.

Poirot

All three of my regular Black Gate readers know that I’m a Nero Wolfe, and Sherlock Holmes, buff. I never took to Agatha Christie. But I had seen some of the excellent BBC series, Poirot, starring David Suchet as the portly Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. I wrote about him here at Black Gate.

That led me to read the Poirot short stories, and I liked them, picturing the characters from the show. I find I prefer the short stories to the novels, which seem a bit tedious to me. You can quibble a little on how many Poirot stories there are (Christie rewrote/repurposed a couple), but let’s just go with 70, which is a solid number. Between 1989 to 2013, Suchet filmed EVERY story. It’s an amazing collection of work and commitment.

There have been several Poirots on screen over the years, including Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, Albert Molina, and even Tony Randall (don’t bother). Kenneth Branagh’s second film is set to hit theaters soon (Pandemic permitting). But Suchet is simply THE definitive Poirot. I cannot imagine a better representation. The show was also high quality in look, plotting, and casting. Some liberties were taken with the original stories, but they remained recognizable at worst, and still enjoyable.

Agatha Christie’s daughter told Suchet that he must never make fun of Poirot, and he didn’t. Suchet went through the stories and made a list of mannerisms and characteristics for the detective. He nearly quit, early in the show’s run, about how Suchet would sit on a bench. He was determined to do Poirot right.

The episodes are a mix of shorter and longer episodes. As with the original stories, I prefer the shorter ones. But that’s just a matter of taste. Suchet plays the fussy detective wonderfully. Hugh Fraser does a fine job as Arthur Hastings, his assistant. It’s a tough role. Hastings isn’t Nigel Bruce’s bumbling Watson, but he’s never a crime solver, either. I think Fraser played the role in between quite well. Philip Jackson is the long-suffering Inspector Japp. He always makes a scene better. And Pauline Moran is Miss Lemon, Poirot’s secretary.

Hastings and Japp are in a bit over half of the episodes. Miss Lemon in less than half. In general, I prefer the ones they’re in. The show just seems more comfortable with at least one of them around.

Suchet wrote a memoir, Poirot and Me, and it’s a wonderful look into his life with the series. There was a one-hour TV special, based on the book, starring himself. I HIGHLY recommend the book and the special (I caught it on Youtube) for fans of the show. The insights are terrific.

I’ve been fortunate to see Jeremy Brett be a definitive Holmes; Maury Chaykin to be the best Nero Wolfe we’ve had; and David Suchet personify Poirot. Even if you’re not a Christie fan, you may still well enjoy his performance. I did.

Leverage

I often re-watch an episode of A&E’s A Nero Wolfe Mystery, which starred Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin. That’s the show that had Maury Chaykin as an excellent Wolfe. Hutton was the star of Leverage, which ran on TNT for seventy-seven episodes over five seasons.

I like a good heist/caper flick, like Ocean’s 11 (new and old), The Italian Job (I prefer the Michael Caine version), and The Getaway (based on a novel by the great Jim Thompson). And also, Solo, which was largely a caper flick with a Star Wars overlay. I’m in!

Leverage was a terrific caper series, and I found out this summer that there’s a 24/7 Leverage channel on Pluto TV. So, naturally, I watched every episode (it took three cycles to catch them all). I wrote a post on Leverage here: click over to check it out in more detail. But it was a quality show, that should absolutely appeal to Mission Impossible fans.

Burn Notice

Back around 2010, USA Network was the leading network for original programming, and Burn Notice was the centerpiece. It ran for seven seasons, covering one hundred and eleven episodes. It was about Michael Weston, played wonderfully by relative newcomer Jeffrey Donovan. He was a burned CIA agent – he had been cut off and kicked to the curb. He is ‘dumped’ in Miami, where his mom, and his ex-girlfriend, live. He tries to find out who burned him and why, often taking on various side jobs.

BurnNoticeEDITEDThere is very little about this show that I do not like. Gabrielle Anwar plays the ex-girlfriend, Fiona, an Irish gunrunner and explosives expert. The great Bruce Campbell is Sam Axe, a former Navy Seal and friend of Michael. Michael’s mom is Cagney and Lacey star Sharon Gless, and she is one tough old broad. She’s reunited with Tyne Daley in one episode, which was neat. Coby Bell joined the show about mid-way through as Jesse, and he does a great job.

There are various guest stars over the seasons, including a series of villains and mysterious figures. Jere Burns (Justified, Dear John) is a chilling psychiatrist. Tricia Helfer and John Mahoney, and Tim Matheson are among those who visit the show.

This show subscribes to the theory that story is driven by conflict. While the side jobs are usually (though not always) solved in one episode, there was an over-arching season plot that constantly threw dangerous obstacles at Michael and his friends. There was no surcease from the pressure and the strain. And it was a mix of good guys and bad guys that he was either working against, or keeping secrets from. Since you’re rooting for him, it actually gets kind of annoying. But it keeps the show moving.

Characters die, and they wrapped everything up with an emotional final episode. The show was never static, and it didn’t leave you hanging at the end – there was closure.

I don’t feel that this show ever jumped the shark. The casting, the scripts, the high quality production values – it all shows that USA was committed to the series. There’s also a background story movie for Campbell’s character, called The Fall of Sam Axe. Bruce was in a salary dispute with USA and was going to leave the show. Show creator Matt Nix brokered a deal that resulted in this made-for-TV movie. Which is fun to watch. A couple characters in the movie show up later in Burn Notice.

I just finished season six of my re-watch, so I’m heading down the home stretch. Along with Justified, this is arguably the best all around, most solid show I’ve ever watched. There really aren’t any notable weaknesses. I highly recommend watching at least season one and seeing what you think of it. It is terrific. It’s also free on Prime.

Bosch

BoschEDITEDNot only have I been re-watching shows in 2020, I decided to check out a couple new ones. And I started with Bosch, which is a Prime Original. I am aware of Michael Connelly’s successful novels, but I don’t do ‘dark’ all that well: I’m more of a hardboiled guy than a noir one. But a couple friends raved about the show and I was looking for something to mix in with my Burn Notice run.

Titus Welliver is Harry Bosch, a tough, bend-the-rules cop in LA. Season one was quite dark, as he chased a serial killer. And Bosch isn’t all that likable. While it remains a serious show, it wasn’t quite as disturbing in season two, and you get to know Bosch better. Season seven has been delayed by this stupid Pandemic.

I think this is an excellent cop show. It is definitely grimmer than Castle, or The Rookie (I’m a Nathan Fillion fan). If that’s the kind of police show you’re looking for, this is probably the best one you’ll find. It’s a very good show. When I like a show, I usually can find a friend or two who didn’t like it (no taste). I haven’t run across anyone who watched this, but quit. It’s that good.

I usually don’t watch more than two episodes in a row. I need a break, so I set it aside for a few days and watch something a little lighter. It can be depressing. But it’s solid.

The Expanse

I’d also heard good things about another Prime Original, and it’s based on novels by James S. Corey. I’m not quite sure how to describe this sci-fi show. It seemed like just about everybody loved the Battlestar Galactica reboot. I did not. I thought it dragged ponderously and I gave up during season one. I was bored. To me, The Expanse is kind of like a similar sci-fi show, but one that did it right.

It’s not an ‘action’ series. There is some, of course, but the story line through five seasons and fifty-six episodes, is politically driven. Science and politics are at the heart of this show. Like I said, it’s hard to explain, but this feels like intellectual sci-fi. And I don’t mean technical. For the first few seasons there are three inter-related stories going on, with different characters. Then they’re all brought together and the master plot continues.

I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s one character who is a mix of Machiavelli and Iago (that’s from Shakespeare, you philistine!). And I despise him, but he’s a compelling villain. The cast is all solid, and the look of the show is dark, which contributes to the mood.

I can see how someone would find this show to be slow (like I did Galactica), but it doesn’t bother me. That’s the part of doing it right which I mentioned. I’m curious to see what happens next, but I’m in the moment with the scenes on the screen. I think it’s a very good science fiction series. I’m on season three, so I’m still catching up.

Hell on Wheels

And I’m going to throw in a plug for Hell on Wheels, which I wrote about here at Black Gate. I just started re-watching season one, even though I’m still finishing Burn Notice and working my way through The Expanse. But it is a Western Noir of terrific quality. I’ll probably revisit this show in another post some day.


Bob_Houston_HatCroppedBob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018 and again from August through December, 2019. It returned in June, 2020.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate  from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).

He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.

He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes. That’s also the name of his podcast.

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV,  V, VI and XXI.


4 Comments »

  1. Briscoe County jr. – what you said!

    Poirot – I’ve read the stories but have not seen Suchet in this role.

    Leverage – in the queue

    Burn Notice – good, but I drifted away around season 4

    Bosch – have not seen any of these. Sounds Interesting.

    The Expanse – quite good, on season 3 like you

    Hell On Wheels – thought Season 1 was great, thought Season 2 was a huge let down and I stopped watching.

    Thanks for the reviews!

    Comment by John E. Boyle - October 5, 2020 3:34 pm

  2. John –

    David Straitharn just popped up in season three of The Expanse. I think he’s an excellent, underappreciated actor. He just made the show even better.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - October 5, 2020 6:18 pm

  3. I’m a big Bruce Campbell fan, and years ago when I spotted the complete Brisco County series on DVD at a bargain price, I grabbed it (without ever having seen an episode of the series, which came and went without my ever being aware of it). Life intervened, however, and to this day I’ve never gotten around to watching it, a lapse which I now intend to rectify. Even if I don’t like as much as you do, it’s got to be better than Bruce’s other series, Jack of All Trades; the first episode of that was so bad I never watched another.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - October 5, 2020 10:08 pm

  4. Thomas – Jack of All Trades was overly silly, but I don’t mind it. The theme song is great.

    They used another character as narrator in the Brisco pilot. He wasn’t terrible, but they dumped it after that. The show hit its stride from two on.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - October 5, 2020 11:40 pm


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