Before Their Time: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

When my boyfriend brought home The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., I was skeptical. I enjoy Bruce Campbell as much as the next person who suffered through Spider-Man 3 (it was a youthful indiscretion; I’m not proud, OK?), but couldn’t see myself getting into a long-cancelled network show set in the Old West. But “network TV set in the Old West” really doesn’t do The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. justice. One might try to describe it as Wild Wild West meets Lost, or steampunk Indiana Jones, or even The X-Files set in Westworld, but this irresistible cocktail of derring-do and kitsch resists succinct descriptions. Its plots dabbled in everything from time travel to courtroom drama. It poached cliffhangers from classic movie serials, anachronisms from Renaissance Italy and post-industrial America, and puns from your dad. It was just self-aware enough to embrace corniness without succumbing to it, and the result is something that is hard to explain but surprisingly easy to watch.

Our titular adventurer is a Harvard Law grad turned bounty hunter (Bruce Campbell) pursuing the gang that murdered his father, federal marshal Brisco County, Sr. (R. Lee Ermey). Junior is an erudite swashbuckler, the sort of crack shot who codes telegrams in Latin and usually leaves the table before Texas Hold ‘Em becomes Texas Hang ‘Em. When his father’s killers steal a mysterious object called the Orb, the wealthy denizens of the Westerfield Club engage Jr.’s services to retrieve it. Between the Club members’ questionable claims of ownership and the Orb’s strange powers, the show cheerfully opens with plenty of avenues to ignore the constraints of its chosen genre. Thus a story about an Old West lawman bringing killers to justice flirts by turns with being a police procedural, a sci-fi epic, a heist film, and a zombie flick. None of this sounds like it should work, but it does, buoyed by charismatic performances from a cast who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely.

Ye Olde Orbe of Mythe and Legende
Ye Olde Orbe of Mythe and Legende

Brisco’s efforts are alternately aided and hampered by competing bounty hunter Lord Bowler (Julius Carry), Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford), a local chanteuse who wants a gang to call her own, and Socrates Poole (Christian Clemenson), the stodgy Club lawyer who oversees Brisco’s expense account. The gang’s leader, one finger-steepling John Bly (Billy Drago), slips in and out of their orbits while inching ever closer to world domination. With each encounter, Brisco ekes out a little more information about the Orb’s purpose and powers, his relationships with Bowler, Dixie, and Socrates take engaging and occasionally surprising turns, and the characters themselves take shape: Bowler’s slapstick bumbling recedes to reveal a canny tracker and war veteran; Dixie refuses to let her affection for Brisco supplant her own ambitions, and Socrates discovers a penchant for middle management and games of chance. For his part, Bruce Campbell inhabits his character with unironic aplomb, leaning into stunts and puns with infectious abandon.

Although it boasts the rich characterization of all shows near and dear to my heart, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. keeps clear of the grittiness of peak TV. It’s just suspenseful enough to keep viewers hooked and serialized with a characteristically light 90s touch. If this sounds like fluff, it is, but in keeping with its general defiance of genre constraints, it’s substantial fluff. Its cheesy wholesomeness belies an interest in the competing visions whose collision would define America. Brisco’s travels bring him into contact with the Industrial Revolution’s first encroachments into the undeveloped frontier. His story touches everything from rockets to slot machines to fingerprint analysis to (proto-) Elvis, and even though the series doesn’t lean into the implications of these imminent cultural shifts as heavily as a more contemporary show might have, it is all funny, thoughtful, and just plausible enough.

This gag was even more gloriously ridiculous than it looks from here.
This gag was even more gloriously ridiculous than it looks from here.

Inexplicably, old-timey cliffhangers and ahistorical swashbuckling were a hard sell, and the series struggled to get ratings. While its immediate successor and spiritual cousin The X-Files would go on for a few seasons too many, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. would ride off into the sunset after only 27 episodes. Genre-defying to the end, after its brief happy run concluded, Brisco County, Jr. bequeathed props to Firefly and Back to the Future III, music to the Olympics, and a showrunner to Lost. Twenty-plus years after it aired, the only thing that really dates the show is its aspect ratio. It remains compulsively watchable, a rollicking good story filled with media and historical references the Internet was born to tease out. Come for Bruce Campbell’s devil-may-care charm and stay for the Hindenburg jokes: The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. is fun for the whole family.

That’s right. This was Lord Bowler’s gun before it was Mal’s.
That’s right. This was Lord Bowler’s gun before it was Mal’s.

HOW TO WATCH: The complete show is available on DVD.

MUST WATCH: “Ned Zed” is a sly tap at the fourth wall, a story about stories about heroism in which our heroes appear as the stars of a series of dime novels about mythical lawman Brisco County, Jr.

FAVORITE LINES: “You’ll have to excuse Comet. He doesn’t know he’s a horse.”

“Well, expectations lead to disappointment, Socrates. That’s why I try not to have any.”

“Where exactly, did she go?”
“Back to the future.”

“Don’t you get it? He’s somebody.”
“Sorry, Dixie, existential thought doesn’t hold much water out here in the territories.”

“Never look too deep into the mind of a lawyer.”

“I like that man.”
“You never were a very good judge of character.”

PAIR WITH: Whiskey and green apples.

WATCH FOR: Outside the main cast, the most notable recurring character is Professor Albert Wickwire, played by John Astin with the same manic glee he brought to TV’s Gomez Addams. Sheena Easton, Tony Jay, and Patrick Fischler make appearances, as do Star Trek alum Robert Picardo and J.G. Hertzler (aka Martok, my favorite Klingon).

AFTERWARDS: Nothing comes quite close, but if you’re in the market for more Bruce Campbell, his Sam Axe in early seasons of Burn Notice has echoes of Brisco. The next best unexpected Old West mashup is Firefly

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