Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance.
The Western is a cornerstone of American pop culture but attempts to incorporate elements of science fiction, horror, and fantasy into the genre haven’t been all that successful on the screen. The Wild Wild West, Back to the Future Part III, and HBO’s Westworld are notable exceptions, of course, but for the most part, Weird Western movies and TV shows haven’t really captivated the mainstream imagination.
That said, many Weird Westerns are still very good, and there are some excellent cult gems out there to be found if you’re willing to do some digging. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., starring Bruce Campbell as the titular bounty hunter in one of his finest roles to date, represents the niche genre at its very best, and it would take a heart of stone not to fall for the show’s many charms.
The basic premise of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. isn’t that far removed from typical Westerns. The show followed the eponymous bounty hunter as he traveled the wild frontier, pursuing John Bly (Billy Drago) and his gang of vicious outlaws in order to claim justice for the murder of his father (R. Lee Ermey). However, Brisco’s quest for justice was regularly sidetracked by other adventures, helping those in need of assistance when trouble came their way.
Brisco was sometimes joined by an interesting mix of allies. Lord Bowler (Julius Carry) was his main accomplice, a fellow bounty hunter who’d often team up with Brisco whenever he wasn’t trying to do the dirty on him. Elsewhere, Christian Clemenson starred as Socrates Poole, a lawyer who represented a governmental body that wanted Bly and his gang out of the picture. Then there’s Albert Wickwire (John Astin), an absent-minded scientist whose futuristic inventions and technology got Brisco out of some pickles.
The show’s juxtaposition of Old West history and futuristic inventions was only a small part of the weirdness on display, though. All of Wickwire’s inventions — tanks, zeppelins, etc. — were rooted in reality, so that element of the show wasn’t entirely implausible, and therefore not that weird. The inventions were connected to the show’s fascination with the twilight of the Old West. Still, unlike the countless elegiac Westerns that have explored the last days of cowboy life, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was more optimistic about the future.
Much of the series’ strangeness revolved around a mystical Orb, which gave special powers to those who knew how to use it. These powers included super strength and the ability to travel through time, but its capabilities were limitless. It also turned out that Bly was really a fugitive from the distant future who needed the Orb to carry out his plans for world domination, but Brisco wasn’t willing to let that happen.
Every once in a while, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. flirted with the supernatural as well. Throughout the series, Brisco regularly interacted with the ghost of his father, who wasn’t a hallucination by any means. There’s another episode where the gang encounters a vengeful spirit, which gave the impression that, in this version of the Old West, anything is possible.
However, despite the show’s more out-there qualities, it was also a love letter to traditional Westerns. The science-fiction touches were sprinkled throughout episodes that also featured train robberies, showdowns at high noon, and every other motif that’s commonplace in cowboy-centric entertainment.
While The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. is indebted to Westerns and science fiction, it’s also very reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movies. Granted, the show is more tongue-in-cheek, but it’s adventurous and revolves around an everyman hero who is smart, witty, and fundamentally decent. However, that’s understandable considering that the show was created by Jeffrey Boam, the screenwriter of The Last Crusade.
After The Last Crusade performed well at the box office, Boam was hired by Fox to create a pulpy adventure series that was inspired by the types of old-fashioned serials that can be found in Indy’s DNA. Boam and co-creator Carlton Cruse then decided to make a sci-fi Western as both were popular genres during the heyday of television serials, and the pair thought it would be fun to combine the two.
The sci-fi elements allowed the show to play around with some inconceivable ideas, but some of the weirdest aspects were more grounded. For instance, in one episode, Brisco must contend with ninjas, and in another, he helps out a sheriff who looks and acts like Elvis Presley. A motorcycle gang appears in another episode, but Brisco and co. think their vehicles are “steel horses.” Yet, within the context of this wacky universe, all of these disparate influences came together most beautifully.
Like all of the best Westerns, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. is transportive entertainment that takes the viewer to another time and place. It’s a show that feels both comfortingly familiar and unpredictable, as the creators fully embraced their old-school influences while throwing all kinds of imaginative surprises into the mix. The beauty of the show is that it played by its own rules, and it was totally earnest, endearing, and fun.
Unfortunately, the show arrived when Westerns were long past their commercial prime, and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr was just too weird to resonate with a broad audience. Brisco rode into the sunset after 27 episodes, and while the story was wrapped up satisfyingly, it deserved a longer shelf life. This universe was rife for more weird tales involving the charming bounty hunter, as well as his friends and foes.
Over the years, however, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. has gained its fans, and a revival might be successful. Campbell’s star power has increased significantly since 1993, and Westerns have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Campbell has also expressed an interest in reprising the character, so never say never. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr is very Petition Worthy, but the likelihood of it being brought back is small.