Now Streaming: The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
A friend of mine has often joked that I am his go-to source for television series which were cancelled during their first season. I believe that the series I recommended to him that cemented my reputation was The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., which ran on FOX for one season in 1993 and starred Bruce Campbell in the title role. His support staff included Julius Carry as Lord Bowler, Christian Clemenson as Socrates Poole, and recurring characters Professor Albert Wickwire (John Astin), Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford), Pete Hutter (John Pyper-Ferguson), John Bly (Billy Drago), and Whip Morgan (Jeff Phillips).
In my article on The Middleman, I commented that it could most properly be compared to a tongue-in-cheek version of Men in Black. If I were to make a similar comparison for The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., I’d compare it to the 1965 television series The Wild Wild West (the film version of which happened to star Will Smith, who was also in Men in Black).
The titular character is hired by a bunch of robber barons to track down the members of John Bly’s gang who ambushed and killed Brisco’s father and, in so doing, damaged the robber barons’ hold on the commerce in the American West in the 1890s. The barons’ liaison with Brisco is Socrates Poole, an effete businessman who strikes up a friendship with Brisco, but is apparently as far removed as possible from the bounty hunter. Early on, Brisco finds a rival, later partner, in the form of Lord Bowler, another bounty hunter who has some surprises of his own.
Although most of the 27 episodes can be enjoyed on their own, the series does have several plot arcs running through them. The most prominent one is Brisco’s search for his father’s killers, most of which have an episode devoted to their capture with John Bly appearing several times. Brisco’s relationship with chanteuse Dixie Cousins also forms an ongoing story arc. Apart from Bly’s gang, Brisco also frequently finds himself facing off against the Swill Brothers (Bill, Phil, Will, and Gil), who are relentless, but not the brightest hombres in the west.
Brisco has an inquisitive mind and is always on the lookout for “the next big thing,” which puts him in well with inventor Albert Wickwire as well as Professor Ogden Coles. While Wickwire is constantly inventing steampunk versions of modern day conveniences, Coles potentially has knowledge of one of the stranger items that makes its way through the series, a mystical object known as “the orb.” Although at first glance, the orb appears to be a maguffin, it eventually ties into the overarching storyline in a meaningful way.
While Brisco’s dedication to finding the next big thing and Wickwire’s inventions make the television show science fiction, the eventual explanation of the orb firmly establishes that the show is, at its very core, a science fiction.
But it is also a Western and the writers have fun playing with all the tropes of the western, and then some. The idea of a lost mine comes up multiple times, there are shootouts, runaway trains, greenhorns from the east, and, of course, outlaws, not least of which is the inexplicable Pete Hutter who has an unnatural attachment to his gun.
If a lot of the humor comes from Brisco’s modern sensibilities and anachronisms, much of it is also based on the characters themselves, whether it is the overconfidence of Lord Bowler and his insistence that Brisco is the sidekick, not him, or the lack of confidence in Socrates Poole whenever he has to leave the confines of the Westerfield Club, where his offices are. Painted as a popular singer and weaving her way through many episodes and Brisco’s heart, Dixie Cousins apparently only knows a single song, which Kelly Rutherford sings in nearly all her appearances. While many of the jokes in The Middleman involve the characters winking at the audience, in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., the jokes are all based firmly in the characters and their situations.
Throughout the series, the writers also merged the standard Western tropes with other common ideas, so “Bounty Hunters’ Convention” is a locked room mystery and “Riverboat” is reminiscent of an episode of Maverick. In one case, the story is told in the form of a father reading a dime novel about Brisco to his son. However, not all of the episodes are particularly memorable and in the one season the show ran, there are a few misses (I can never remember what happens in “Pirates”) and the writers and producers clearly found the characters of Whip Morgan and Aaron Viva (Gary Hudson) more interesting that I did.
While the series as a whole is a lot of fun to watch, perfectly capturing the feel of pulp adventures with cliffhangers, danger, and humor, as well as interweaving the American west with science fiction, perhaps its most lasting legacy is its theme song. Written by Randy Edelman, the theme song has been used by NBC since 1996 as background for their commercials for Olympic coverage, making the music from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. as tied to those sporting events in the American mind as much as much as Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream” and John Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare and Theme.”
When it fires on all cylinders, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. manages to fulfill the viewer’s appetite for drama, humor, romance, adventure, westerns, fantasy, science fiction, and more. The actors mesh well together and there is a camaraderie between Campbell, Clemenson, Carry, and Rutherford throughout the series, even when the scripts call for them to be awkward around each other. Nearly 30 years after Brisco County rode off into the sunset astride Comet the Wonder Horse, the show still feels fresh and clever.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Google Play, but must be purchased/rented on all of those services. DVDs can be purchased.
Steven H Silver is a seventeen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology, Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings, was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.
This show was just a lot of fun. Time for a rewatch! Thanks for a great post, Mr. Silver.
Steven beat me to writing about this one. It was my all-time favorite TV show for several years and is in the top five still.
The combination of Western, old-time serials, and tongue-in-cheek humor, was terrific. Easily my favorite Bruce Campbell project.
I will write about the pilot somewhere down the line, but kudos to Steven for getting this one up. It is simply a TERRIFIC show. Somehow, while many other shows had ‘Made for TV Movies’ reunions – long before streaming networks – this one got skipped. Then Julius Carry passed, and it just wouldn’t have been the same.
Also, Comet is the best horse to ever grace big or little screens.