Back in the ancient era of the early 1990s television was a vastly different beast than it is today. Genres ran wild at the time, in a way that are old hat today. The police procedural + [insert genre trope of choice] was just starting to explode (see Brimstone, Cop Rock, Strange Luck, Twin Peaks). Children’s programming was experimenting with darker tones (Eerie, Indiana). But 31 years ago, one show in particular premiered that would subtly inspire television for years to come.
On August 27th, 1993 The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. first hit TV screens. The show was ostensibly a western, set 100 years earlier in 1893, but brought in a huge number of other genres. It starred Bruce Campbell (of the Evil Dead/Army of Darkness franchise) as Brisco County, Jr., a lawyer turned bounty hunter. He was also the son of a famous ranger, and somewhat lived in his shadow. The first episode had his father killed while transporting famous gang-leader John Bly. The western plot is Brisco is then hired to hunt down Bly and his escaped gang, allowing him to pursue both justice and revenge. But there was so much more.
The character of Dixie Cousins, a con-artist, becomes the main love interest, bringing in a will they/won’t they romance through-story to the show. There’s his rival/partner Lord Bowler who provides a sort of road trip bromance. Being a show starring Bruce Campbell, you can bet that the general tone is also smarmy comedy. Still need more mash-ups? Okay. There’s professor Albert Wickwire (played by the wonderful John Astin)
who follows the group around and invents a great many steam-powered versions of contemporary items, encouraged by Brisco and his love of “the coming thing”, which essentially was a the spirit of invention, progress, and the gestalt of useful technology. Yes, it’s an early example of steampunk television as well. But it’s also a science fiction show. Yes, there’s a long-form plot that runs behind hunting down the gang, and that’s the orb. There’s a mysterious metal orb, a sphere made up of removable rods. The rods contain energy and are sometimes used as weapons, sometimes to imbue the wielder with powers. At this point you may be thinking that this show is all over the place. It is. You may also wonder how much time was spent on each of these plots and relationships. The answers vary, but the show only ran for a single 27 episode season.
How did all these ideas end up in the show, you may also wonder. Well, there are two creator/writers credited for this show. The first is Jeffrey Boam, who worked on the scripts for movies such as Lethal Weapon 1-3, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and TV shows like Tales from the Crypt. The other name attached is… Carlton Cuse, of Lost fame. And those two names make the entire series make perfect sense. As jumbled and disparate the each aspect of Brisco are, when you say that it was written by the people who wrote Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon, and Lost it seems obvious that this show would be, well, this show. I suppose now something like this would seem like a rarity, a risk rarely taken. Perhaps a writing team could pitch a show with two of those facets. Maybe a third. But for an original property to have such free reign over all of them is kind of mind-boggling.
And speaking of now-a-days, let’s take a look at what it did influence. For more current shows, a sci-fi western with a strong-chinned lead who sometimes leans into a bit of camp you may think of something like Firefly, and that is true. But a strange branch in television history that seems to have sprouted directly from this is the Sam Raimi TV-verse. These shows include things like Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, as well as the lesser known Jack of All Trades. I actually had to dig around through a bunch of credit sites and interviews to verify that The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. as not, in fact, a Raimi production. It absolutely felt like one, with the high camp, anachronistic humor, historical setting, and casting of Bruce Campbell. But it turns out that it’s the other way around! So much of those shows, each with varying degrees of fame and fandom, seem to be very directly influenced from this short-lived show. And not that I can blame Raimi. At the time this show was seen as strange and new and well executed. I can see how someone with Raimi’s sensibilities would be drawn to it, and even feel its absence after it left the air. But with that in mind, sometimes the similarities are a bit stark.
It’s funny. The show threw tons of things together to see what would stick, and in the end almost everything did. It explicitly embraced “the coming thing”, and in doing so actually planted the seeds for decades worth of television. This one-season cult hit was itself “the coming thing”. Bruce Campbell’s personal legacy is that of horror/comedy by way of The Evil Dead, but his actual legacy runs much deeper and broader than most people will realize. It’s so obscure that it has been overlooked by every streaming and digital service I looked at. If you want to see this classic you’ll have to grab a DVD set. But they do run pretty cheap and the show is a secret treasure, so I’d recommend it.