Twentieth Century Fox, despite its flaws for which we won’t go into, has always been the home of innovative television; indeed this fact can be attributed to its late 80s, early 90s boom where it kick-started new trends in television, with popular shows such as 21 Jump Street relating to school kids, while delivering plenty of drama; In Living Colour and The Simpsons breaking new ground in comedy, while Alien Nation brought a new angle to science fiction. In 1993 Fox ordered two new shows. The first would go on to become a world-wide phenomenon: The X-Files. Surprisingly, however, Fox officials paid little attention to Chris Carter’s conspiracy series, instead placing all their focus on The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr, which they felt was bound to bring in huge ratings. Brisco County, Jr came at what should have been the right time; there were no westerns on TV, save for repeats of classic shows, although they were beginning to slowly trickle through with the likes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and the premise of creators Carlton Cuse and Jeffrey Boam’s series was so intriguing that it shouldn’t have been any less than a massive success. This was genre breaking stuff: science fiction and drama set during frontier times, bringing with it endless amounts of possibilities with which the writers had freedom let loose their imaginations. While The X-Files was getting less than stellar attention from the studio, Brisco County, Jr took off like a shot, and for a while it was the success that Fox had been hoping for. But an unexpected twist occurred mid-season, when the series began to slow down and lose viewers; it was during this critical stage that The X-Files, which aired each week, right after Fox’s flagship found its feet and an unrelenting audience. Sadly for Brisco County, Jr it was enough to see the series - which should have made Fox millions - cancelled. The show ended up becoming an obscure, yet cult classic which had been denied far greater attention, until now.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr takes place in the ol’ Wild West, 1893 to be exact. When Marshal Brisco County (R. Lee Ermey) is shot and killed in the line of duty by the notorious John Bly (Billy Drago) and his gang, his son Brisco County, Jr (Bruce Campbell) is called to San Francisco, where he’s employed by the “Robber Barons” at the Westerfield Club to track down Bly and his infamous men. Brisco, a Harvard trained lawyer, now bounty hunter, vows to catch and put away every last member of those involved in his father’s death, though not for revenge purposes. Helping him is liaison Socrates Poole (Christian Clemenson) and his faithful horse Comet. No sooner does Brisco start his new job that a fellow bounty hunter is hot on his trail. Lord Bowler, the best tracker in the land races to beat Brisco to each bounty; running into each other at every turn frustration soon sets in and the pair finds themselves in an impossible position. They come to an arrangement and head out as partners: the two bringing in Bly’s men , while Bowler reaps the tastey rewards. But the further they journey together the greater they begin to bond, and soon a perfect alliance is formed. Brisco soon learns of his destiny with Bly, and a mysterious orb that the known felon wants for himself, which might just hold the fate of the world within it. Along the way, Brisco and Bowler make many enemies and also meet new friends, including the enigmatic Professor Wickwire (John Astin) and showgirl Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford). With a new world on the horizon and the “coming thing” just around the corner, their adventures are only just beginning…
It’s almost impossible to relate Brisco County, Jr to any other television series in existence; it had its own niche, which one has to wonder whether or not it contributed toward its ultimate failure, despite receiving critical praise. It’s somewhat difficult to believe because the series is wholly relatable to any audience. Perhaps the series labelling itself as some kind of sci-fi/western/comedy/drama was enough to make marketing nigh on impossible. But in truth this is all part of Brisco County, Jr’s charm. It’s certainly admirable that the series went all out to try something different and not stick to conventional rules. Part of the reason why the series was so well timed is because Carlton Cuse and his producing partner, the late Jeffrey Boam, tapped into the social relevance of today. By placing the series exactly one hundred years before the present (being 1993 when it aired) it gave the series a pleasantly nostalgic glow, while also allowing it to play up to contemporary life, just as we, the viewers, were awaiting the dawn of a new century and a millennium. The idea was that Brisco County, Jr wasn’t just another western, with cowboys and Indians and fairly routine storylines, but rather a whole new element unto itself. While the series retains obvious western traits it imbued a whole new worldly sense, which in turn helped it to break away from the traditional mould.
What immediately grabs our attention is the sudden twist, which soon becomes a large thematic element within the series. Coincidentally, as with The X-Files, Brisco County, Jr brought with it a story arc that would frequent in and out of the entire series. While Mulder and Scully were investigating alien existence, Brisco was trying to hunt down an “unearthed foreign object” known as the orb. This orb ultimately shares ties with John Bly and his gang, which sees to it that the various elements that the writers have conjured up easily fit into single episodes where multiple story paths - involving Brisco track down various eccentric members of Bly’s gang - take place. As the series progresses the reasons behind the orb’s appearance and Brisco’s destiny with it become readily apparent, as does Bly’s ongoing interest in capturing it for himself. The orb plots are often ambiguous affairs; we only get to know that it has special powers, that anyone it allows itself to bond with can possess equal powers which can be used for destruction as well as good. It all adds an intriguing element to the series as it becomes more complicated, with the addition of time travel taking it way beyond the realms of classic Western fare. The term science fiction can be loosely applied to a series such as Brisco County, Jr because if we were to examine the series we’d only find that the orb and time travel pieces are all it is for this genre to go by, and that toward the end this was an element that was slowly being filtered out. Still, it’s entirely relevant and rather cleverly the series uses factual science in what could be deemed fiction, due to its anachronistic setting.
Brisco County, Jr is all about the changing world. Brisco is always on the look out for the “coming thing”, and in the series that thing is right around the corner. As the world soon begins to conform to modernisation, Brisco and his friends become privy to technological marvels such as electricity, forensics and recording devices; things that will improve everybody’s daily life and help to make the justice system a much more reliable force. Rarely does the series acknowledge the real life inventors of these numerous devices and so forth because the series takes place in its own universe, where everything is plausibly conjured up. It doesn’t rely on factual evidence to any great extent and neither does it worry about historical inaccuracy. But it’s not just the small things. As episodes continue to roll on we witness the introduction of military warfare, from body armour and cannons to motorcycles and tanks, as well as air travel, with the arrival of the zeppelin, each with tiny references as to where they came from. It’s all so very tongue in cheek in this respect, with most of what we see being used as a comical device as it slyly winks at its audience. The writers allow the anachronisms to fly as the series pulls out of its hat a never-ending supply of jokes and throwbacks that most modern audiences will pick up in an instant. Granted, the majority of these have far greater impact on a U.S. audience, considering that several would be obscure to many viewers around the world, unless they’re familiar with U.S. pop culture. Led Zeppelin, Dr Quinntaro, Duncan’s Donuts; some are more obvious than others. Film and TV buffs should however find plenty to lap up, with some wonderful nods going to films such as Psycho and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, while many famous faces from popular, classic American Westerns pop up from time to time for those of us to pick out.
Being primarily a western the series does have to comply with some form of tradition, and from time to time it does keep to a relatively simple path. Our heroes swiftly get on the trail of some criminal, which sooner or later involves good ol’ horse chases and run-ins with the local sheriff and ignorant town folk; pretty standard stuff, but thanks to a fresh and lively approach there’s rarely a dull moment. The writers take stock of clichéd plot devices that have been recycled over the years on television and pretty much apply them to Brisco County, Jr. Fortunately they know exactly what they’re doing and how to exploit several instances. There’s a care free nature about the series, which often sees it head into cartoon-like territory. Yes it’s a western that’s trying to bring back that classic morning serial feel and 40s and 50s motion picture majesty, but it isn’t shy in getting a little Scooby Doo from time to time. There are ghost stories, episodes with fun and silly twists, even familiar moral lessons that kids were accustomed to seeing in several animated shows during the early to mid 80s. Brisco County, Jr had the luxury of being produced by two guys who were well familiar with the kinds of adventure they were aiming for here. Having worked on Lethal Weapon 1 and 2 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Jeffrey Boam had a great understanding of where to take his new series. Carlton Cuse, who has since hit big time with Lost, Martial Law and Nash Bridges had very little of that experience prior to Brisco County, Jr, but together their pairing was simply unforgettable. And so we see plenty of those Indy moments, the wonderful banter between players, innuendo, double entendres and the James Bond situations that would excite viewers every week. In turn they made the series every bit as special as the movies that they had based it on.
One of the biggest draws to the series is the presence of cult icon Bruce Campbell in the titular role of County, Jr. Campbell wasn’t exactly a huge name in 1993; he’d certainly found his audience by then, thanks to the Evil Dead franchise and several other cult horror movies, but he’s always displayed an unrivalled gift for charm, wit and physical presence. Clearly that was enough to ensure him the role, after several auditions that is. In Brian Lowry’s 1995 publication “The Truth is Out There: The X-Files” he quotes new Fox Entertainment Chairman, Sandy Grushow as saying “he’d eat my desk” if Bruce Campbell didn’t become a star after Brisco County, Jr; more high praise which showed just how confident the group were in their series at the time. Campbell subsequently may not have become a huge part of the mainstream Hollywood alumni, but then I doubt it ever bothered him. Campbell has always chosen the right roles for him and earned enough to make a living, and his fans admire him for his views on acting and his creative decisions. Whatever the case may be there is no denying that The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr was Bruce Campbell’s finest hour. The series was perfect for him in every way. Campbell has a wonderful knack for playing emotions, but it’s rare that we get to see them, aside from one or two exceptions such as his appearance on The X-Files in season 6’s “Terms of Endearment”, In the Line of Duty: Blaze of Glory and of course Bubba Ho-tep. In Brisco County, Jr he has the opportunity to not only play a charismatic and macho character, but also one of great sensitivity. Brisco is amongst the last in a dying breed of honourable heroes as the great frontier draws to an end, and his journey takes him down both light and dark paths. He’s an all-round interesting character who’s portrayed as having very real fears, primarily pertaining to not being able to settle down in life, which is soon challenged by the lovely Dixie Cousins. Campbell relishes the opportunity to fully develop his character and as such we see poignancy, humour and above all else a great sense of humanity.
The series wouldn’t be all it is with just Campbell though. Although Brisco’s name carries it this is, like most, an ensemble piece, where secondary and tertiary characters prove to be essential. Julius Carry, he of the Readybreak glow-tastic The Last Dragon, proves to be a vital component as Brisco’s good friend Lord “James Lonefeather” Bowler. Initially Bowler and Brisco are rivals who just “happen” to run in to each other, or rather Bowler is constantly following Brisco so that he can get a heads up on the latest bounty. Eventually, after realising that the clashing of heads is doing them no good they form a partnership. From here their relationship grows positively, despite the constant bickering between the two and the fact that they usually end up getting into difficult situations. The much needed affection shines through in the end, and like Brisco, Bowler also has his sweet natured and caring side. Carry is marvellous - an actor who doesn’t get enough recognition these days - as the brash bounty hunter; the perfect match for Campbell’s sophisticated Harvard cowboy, with his own perfect comic timing, a lovable laugh and a hulking presence. There’s a chemistry there that ensures one of the best partnerships in television history and boy do I wish we could have seen more of it.
It’s not often I go into overdrive and hand out unprecedented amounts of praise towards actors in television shows, but in all honesty Brisco County, Jr has one of the best ensembles I have seen. Christian Clemenson bills third in the show as Socrates Poole, the middle man and advisor to Brisco and Bowler. Socrates is a typical wide-eyed bookworm, who can all but dream of going on the kinds of adventures that Brisco does every day. On occasion he does so, and it’s always fun to see the character react to his surroundings. Clemenson delivers an infectious performance that bridges innocent and seriously informed qualities. And how can I not mention the final member of the main cast, Comet? Yes, even Brisco’s trusty steed is a joy to watch onscreen. He and Brisco bicker almost as much as Brisco and Bowler do, but they also have a cute friendship that goes further than just being a working relationship. Comet is sensitive and self-aware of everything around him and as luck would have it a good saviour for Brisco, whenever he gets himself into a pickle.
Support wise, Brisco County, Jr is loaded with great guest stars. Billy Drago heads up the main roster of villains as Brisco’s arch enemy John Bly, usually enjoying himself immensely as he hams up the theatrics and tries to disparage Brisco by telling him that he’s permanently living in his father’s shadow, while the gorgeous Kelly Rutherford lends a 40’s starlet quality, with a pitch perfect accent (citing Mae West as an influence) to Southern belle Dixie Cousins - Brisco’s love interest throughout the series. She’s great at playing things very secretive; leaving us to wonder what her intentions and goals are. A personal favourite though, and one of many I imagine, is John Pyper-Ferguson, perfectly cast as criminal mastermind Pete Hutter. From his introductory scene we know that Pete is a character who we can grow to love. He’s everything a bad guy should be and yet he’s just so darn likeable. His plans usually never work and he’ll always stab someone in the back, but he’s absolutely hilarious. The best parts are when he resurfaces time and again after being supposedly killed in the previous episode; the writers just provide some dodgy, but brilliant excuse for him and carry on as normal. He’s the Wile E. Coyote and without Ferguson his character wouldn’t work half as well, and you only have to see him getting riled up over someone touching his beloved gun to realise this. Never touch Pete’s piece! John Astin resonates as Professor Wickwire; being no stranger to westerns himself (I’ll always have a soft spot for Evil Roy Slade) he’s very fitting for the role of the intelligent, though slightly barmy man. As the show passed its midway point the producers brought in more supporting characters, in what I can only presume was with the hopes of a second season. Whip Morgan (Jeff Phillips) was introduced in a recurring role that saw his character become increasingly likeable. He’s a hot-headed rogue whose initially appeared to be fairly typical, but surprisingly he was remarkably well fleshed out, given just a few appearances. Getting back to its anachronistic flourishes, one of the most memorable supporting characters, though he only appeared in three episodes, is Gary Hudson’s Sheriff Aaron Viva. That’s right, an Elvis inspired lawman, complete with the moves and glorious accent. I won’t spoil it, suffice it to say that you can expect a tonne of Elvis references that are effortlessly played out. Look out for further guest stars such as R. Lee Ermey, Robert Picardo, Denise Crosby, Tracey Walter, Xander Berkeley, Andrea Parker, Sheena Easton and James Hong.
I think I’ve exhausted myself by this point, saying all that needs to be said and leaving you with so much more to discover. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr is a true one off. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another show like this and it’s a great shame that it was suddenly cancelled when it clearly had so much more to offer. Having said that, at least the series did end with a nice sense of closure; this coming from the writers who had no idea that it was about to be axed. It seemed clear that by the end of this run it had tidied up a lot of loose ends and was ready to head in a new direction. Who knows what would have been in store for Brisco and company? Well, at least now we can enjoy the first - and last - of an unforgettable series over and over.
Episode List: Please note that these are presented in production order.
2) Socrates’ Sister
3) The Orb Scholar
4) No Man’s Land
5) Brisco in Jalisco
8) Senior Spirit
9) Brisco for the Defense
11) Deep in the Heart of Dixie
12) Crystal Hawks
13) Steel Horses
14) Mail Order Brides
15) A.K.A. Kansas
16) Bounty Hunter’s Convention
17) Fountain of Youth
18) Hard Rock
19) The Brooklyn Dodgers
20) Bye Bly
21) Ned Zed
23) Wild Card
24) And Baby Makes Three
25) Bad Luck Betty
26) High Treason: Part I
27) High Treason: Part II
Warner Bros presents The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr on a fine 8-disc set. The box is a simple fold-out digi-pack which comes housed in a slip cover. The artwork is very elegant, although when it comes to the disc menus they are quite standard, each disc featuring the same static image, while Randy Edelman’s superb main theme plays over the top. A booklet, featuring personal notes on each episode by Bruce Campbell is also included; featuring some nice production stills.
When it comes to TV on DVD Warners don’t show anywhere near the kind of love that they do for their classic movie releases. Brisco County, Jr was originally shot on film and so obviously that would have been the preferred choice here. Instead we’re looking at broadcast tape masters that preserve the series in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, so don’t expect any kind of remastering. There are specks of dust throughout and the odd scratch; I tried to compare these to my VHS recordings from years back but to be honest those tapes are pretty old and worn and don’t make for great reference material. Still, I can say that the series looks good. Colours are pleasing during the main episodes, if sometimes a little dark, while the title sequence is noticeably boosted in this area. The image exhibits a little haze and a lot of softness, which tends to vary from episode to episode and comes off worse on wider shots. Close up detail is generally fine and you’ll find that you’ll easily adjust after an episode or two. Is it too much to ask for film masters? Probably for a show that’s so little known, although considering that Warners has splashed a little cash for extras it’s even more of a shame that they couldn’t go the extra mile.
For sound we get original English 2.0 and it sounds pretty good. The main title theme is lively and grabs your attention as soon as each episode begins, while dialogue is a little hit and miss. For the most part it’s fine, but there is a slight hollowness in voices from time to time. Sound effects are pleasing, considering there are quite a few explosions here and there, although the levels tend to drown out dialogue while characters are trying to shout over the top of them.
The series comes with Closed Captions, but no player generated English subtitles, which is bound to upset some people. As a slap in the face, Warners manages to include generated subs in French and Spanish.
Audio Commentary with Bruce Campbell and Carlton Cuse
Co-Executive Producer Carlton Cuse and star Bruce Campbell sit down to the series’ pilot episode and go way back to how it all started. Campbell gets into his audition process and then talks with Cuse about how the series came about, bridging science fiction and western elements, seeing that the old 50s serials were something that they were trying to emulate. The commentary never lets up, with both participants offering a wealth of information on the series. Don’t expect the kind of hilarious antics from Campbell that we’re usually accustomed to on DVD commentaries, but he still has a fun presence and talks a lot about his character and learning the ropes in terms of being a cowboy, while working on a famous back-lot. The tight shooting schedule is discussed, writing the scripts and famous cliff-hangers, anachronisms, stunts, working with horses and a slew of anecdotes. When it gets about half way through the pair chat about Fox and the show’s cancellation, Kelly Rutherford and John Astin being drafted in and how each of these characters represent certain aspects of the series. What I really like about Bruce Campbell is his honest approach to everything, including acting and here he gives us some great insights, including a little bit about cast chemistry and how it’s something that you can never predict when it comes to filming; various little things like this help to give us more of an understanding of the whole film making process. Likewise, Carlton Cuse gives us plenty on getting ideas on paper and discussing their implementation into episodes with the other writers. There’s also some very interesting facts to be had here, including the plans to release the pilot theatrically overseas. It would have been nice to get more commentaries, particularly group ones with Julius Carry, Kelly Rutherford and Christian Clemenson, which would have been a nice reuinion after a bittersweet end to the series, but for a single commentary this offers plenty for fans.
Brisco’s Book of Coming Things
Narrated by Campbell, in character as Brisco, we get the low down on several inventions that appear throughout the series: Rockets, Inner Space Suits, Day Glasses, Hamburgers, Ride Thru Dining, Denim, Machinery Guns, Steel Horses, Sushi and Air Ships. They’re very brief, lasting under a minute each and come with moving images from the series and sketches of each invention.
The History of Brisco County (30.07)
Although brief, this brand new documentary charts the genesis of the series, with Carlton Cuse taking us through the original ideas. Along with Cuse we get new interviews with Bruce Campbell, Julius Carry, Christian Clemenson and Kelly Rutherford. We get a nice collection of interviews, with each cast member fondly remembering their time on the series and praising the wonderful cast chemistry. Throughout the doc, Cuse talks about how the series developed, getting characters together and introducing new elements, such as inventions and anachronisms and science fiction. Some behind the scenes clips are shown, revealing a cast who are thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Tools of the Trade (11.42)
Here we get specific interviews that explain several important elements in the series. Bruce Campbell, Julius Carry and Christian Clemenson talk about how they learned to ride horses for the series, using several horses for specific scenes and generally having a lot of fun in the process. Next we get footage of Campbell from 1993 as he introduces us to the casual handling of guns; brief but funny. Kelly Rutherford takes us through the charm of the series, talking about the outfits and her chemistry with Campbell, joking along the way. She’s a very fun woman and clearly has a lot of love for her co-stars and the series as a whole. Moving on, Carlton Cuse tells what Season 2 would have been like had it been given a chance. Finally The Orb is touched upon, where Cuse talks about what it stands for. He’s joined by the writers of the series as they discuss the challenge of placing the orb in specific storylines and making sure they could tie up loose ends and explain the mythology somewhat.
A Reading from the Book of Bruce (7.29)
Bruce Campbell takes some time out to read a passage from his brilliant debut book “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-movie Actor”. This particular chapter sees him talk about Brisco County, Jr. Campbell provides an honest and candid look at going into the series, working on the classic Warner lot as a contract player in his first TV series. The speed of the series’ shooting and stunt work is touched upon, along with some tricks of the trade. It ends with Campbell’s upbeat attitude toward the series’ cancellation and moving on to new horizons.
A Brisco County Writer’s Room (42.59)
Co-creator and Executive Producer Carlton Cuse is joined by Supervising Producers John Wirth, Brad Kern, Tom Chehak, Co-Producer David Simkins and Story Editor John McNamara for this pleasant discussion on bringing Brisco’s stories to life. This is made up of chapters, starting with “Just Under Over the Top”, which sees the group talking about trying to hit the right tone for the series and overcoming several obstacles that would crop up during the scripting process, along with concepts that never quite made it. “All I really Needed to Know I learned from Brisco” moves onto they guys discussing their careers and lessons learned since working on Brisco County, Jr. The importance of having a strong team who can collaborate and capture the perfect tone is touched upon, as well as the difficulties for some in hitting the perfect moments for a storyline and integrating several different genre elements. They hit a really funny spot when discussing how they brought about several guest characters before we move onto the third chapter “You Stole My Stampede”. Here the individual members talk about their favourite episodes of the series, which sees them talk over one another and laugh, but they get there in the end and it’s fun listening to their wonderful stories. The final chapter “What Happened When the Fat Lady Sang” gets into the unfortunate cancellation of the show. Carlton Cuse explains his season 2 ideas and not being able to use them. Overall we have here a very good insight into the creative writing process and a lot of genuine sentiments from all involved as they discuss the series that they fell in love with.
Long time Brisco County, Jr fans, like myself, will relish this complete collection of the one and only series to be made featuring everyone’s fave cult actor Bruce Campbell. For those unfamiliar with the series I can thoroughly recommend checking out this unique western and joining Brisco, Bowler and their friends on a fantastic journey, filled with guns, fine women, jokes aplenty and high adventure.