Test Pilot: File #38, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

Test Pilot #38: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

Debut date: August 27, 1993

Series legacy: One of the more beloved one-season wonders, mostly for its curious mix of genres, styles and imagery

Welcome back to Test Pilot guys and gals! With that extra-special Joss Whedon Theme Week behind us, it’s time to fall back into the typical, but still lovely rhythms of the feature. Today, we continue our fun exploration of one television’s most discussed subjects: One-season wonders.

Most series crash and burn before a prospective second season, but there are some that stick in our mind many years after cancellation. There is a large fascination with television series that only manage to produce a single season (often at a short order at that) before they are chopped down by “the man.” We are compelled by the possibilities and the what could have been for programs that projected all sorts of promise and upside but were never actually able to cash in on either. This theme hopes to explore some of the most celebrated one-season wonders and consider what, exactly, made audiences latch on to them so spectacularly.

Welcome back to Test Pilot everyone! I am happy to be with you on this glorious Leap Day and I hope that despite some obstacles (more on that in moment), today’s entry will be just as good as all those that came before it. But before we get into it, an important note: Today’s exploration of The Adventure of Brisco County Jr. will feature no co-writer. My planned contributor had to drop out at the last minute and there was not too much interest on Twitter, so I just thought I would tackle this one on my own. I wish this did not have to happen, but sometimes it is nice to mix up the formula, if even a little bit. The good news for you, dear readers, is that there will be less for you to have to take in. Which could be a good thing. Maybe. I do not know. ANYWAY.

I started Test Pilot some 18 months ago because I wanted to have an excuse to go back through television’s history and watch just a little of so many series I missed when I was not paying attention to television or not even alive. In this era, where people are talking about television all the time online, there are certain series that carry weight, for a number of reasons. Obviously, series like The Sopranos or The Wire are looked at as part of the unofficial “canon” of television and we are all urged to watch them to experience the apex of quality television. But other series, like today’s topic of discussion, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., evoke different, but still interesting reactions from fans.

Of all the “one-season wonders” folks like to discuss, Brisco County has always seemed the most compelling to me. From an uneducated distance, the early 1990s FOX series looked like the perfect representative of a cool idea that could not quite fit within the constraints of broadcast television of the time and therefore, it fascinated me. Basically, I have been waiting for a good theme to build Brisco County into since Test Pilot’s inception and am damn happy I could finally make that happen.

And after watching Brisco County’s two-hour pilot episode that aired all the way back in 1993, I more or less have my confirmation about the series’ place amid the pantheon of one-season wonders.

Of the five pilots that we have covered in this theme so far, Brisco County is probably the “weirdest” on paper. Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared feature totally self-explanatory concepts (which makes their lack of success even more disheartening), Profit is mostly a victim of its own darkness and awkward pilot execution and Cupid, despite a certain level of “high-concept”-ness, makes complete sense on the screen.

But a western mashed together with a science-fiction serial, with a dash of anachronistic contemporary dialogue and behavior? That premise is a bit more difficult to swallow, even today, and probably resulted in lots of challenges for the FOX marketing department back in 1993 (although it appears their answer might just have been, “Well, it’s on Fridays.”). And unlike Cupid, which has very little issue executing its high-concept premise, Brisco County struggles somewhat to find the right rhythms and that is not even considering the genre mash-up underlying the pilot’s events.

Most of Brisco County’s pilot issues can be traced back to its length. Two-hour pilots sound like a great idea in theory, but oftentimes the execution ends up being less successful. The Lost pilot is one of the few two-hour openers I think really works and even then ABC was smart enough to break it up across two weeks. There are a few stretches in Brisco County’s pilot that plod along, where there is an obvious end-point in mind but the episode takes an extra few minutes to get there. This pilot has a solid atmosphere and it is likely smart to let the audience marinate in a world that is both in the past and not quite like the past they may have read about in a textbook.

However, establishing a world does not give a pilot free reign to let the characters catch up to things the audience already knows. There is an extended sequence where Brisco is posing as a random guy from Kansas as to get closer to John Bly and Big Smith and while Bruce Campbell has a ball giving that kind of winking and knowing performance, that part of the episode drags substantially. And even though the world itself is slightly unnatural, there are not so many characters introduced here to completely justify the two-hour running time. This is basically a premise pilot, albeit one with a shade of “high concept,” that is, from the beginning, building to a singular moment that eventually comes at the end where Brisco Jr. finally visits (and apologizes) to his recently-murdered father. Campbell does fine work in that final scene, the episode treats it with a certain level of gravitas and it feels like the story is really beginning right there. But again, there is a bit of fat in the middle that was not necessary.

Nevertheless, those last few paragraphs suggest I disliked Brisco County more than I actually did. Concept-wise, this is the kind of thing that is directly in my wheel-house. I am not the biggest western fan in the world, nor do I really consider myself a diehard sci-fi guy. However, the combination of the two genres, plus the underlying sense of the heightened fantastical, works on me, if solely because I find any series that tries something different or tries to smash a few different big elements together so compelling. Brisco County’s script, penned by Jeffrey Boam and Lost’s Carlton Cuse, does a nice job of underplaying the sci-fi elements in these opening two hours. Most of that material detailing the mystery of The Orb is dealt with right out front and then late in the episode.

The pilot whets the palate with a sufficient amount of information about The Orb (making it clear that Cuse had a little experience with this sort of thing by the time he made it to Lost) and the other anachronistic material like the rocket fits into the series’ somewhat goofy vibe anyway. Boam (and apparently, Cuse, though he’s uncredited) worked on an Indiana Jones film and clearly, Brisco County fits right alongside that film series. Both integrate more contemporary technologies and dialogue into a historical setting and really, this pilot is just as successful at that as any of the Indy films.

The one adjective I would use to describe this pilot is simply “fun.” Campbell is clearly comfortable in the lead role and the script gets the tone mostly-right throughout the two hours. Brisco County’s pilot isn’t completely self-reflexive, but it is certainly not afraid to toy with many of the western genre’s conventions without turning into some sort of hackneyed parody. And the aside from the aforementioned bloat issues, there is really nothing else to complain about here. The plot is not as complex as the generic mash-up might believe you to think and the basic structure is sound (which makes the bloat so frustrating).

By taking that approach, Brisco County initially unspools with most of the conventions of a western in place. Amid the sci-fi, the heightened reality or the anachronistic clashing of time periods, the pilot is most dominantly and obviously a western. In theory, that would make it much easier for random audiences to jump in and enjoy and therefore make the series more successful. In my research, I found that the Brisco County pilot was fairly well-received by critics and audiences alike (though I couldn’t find any particular rating figures), but as the story went along in the first season and sci-fi elements became more prominent, audiences tuned out. Again, the series aired on Fridays at 8 p.m., which isn’t the world’s greatest timeslot. However, we have to remember that this series aired right in front of The X-Files during both series’ first season, so clearly audiences were willing to stay home to watch something.

With that in mind, it is somewhat difficult to postulate why The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. failed to garner a second season. FOX is the network that fans like to complain about because it cancels the internet’s favorite series, but as I (and others) always say: Chances are, the only way something like Brisco County was getting on the air, especially in 1993, was through FOX. Putting it on Fridays certainly didn’t help matters, but again, I’ve poked holes in that as well.

There is definitely something to the series’ failure to walk the perfect generic tightrope that it pulls off quite well in the pilot. In an interview from the middle of Brisco’s sole season on the air, Cuse told USA Today, “We were biting off more than we could chew… we were trying to do a comedic action adventure Western, with tongue-in-cheek humor, genuine drama, plus science fiction. All these things added too many elements to serve simultaneously.” And apparently, by the end of the first season, a lot of the sci-fi portions of the story had been toned down. It is very likely that the genre mash-up didn’t appeal to viewers, especially those staying home to watch television on Friday nights in 1993. For all its complications, The X-Files was very straightforward in that first season.

However, I am curious about Brisco County’s primary genre center and how that actually led to its cancellation. There is no question that the western genre has had success on the small screen. The western was one of, if not the most popular genre on television in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1959, eight of the top 10 series on the air were westerns. Bonanza and Gunsmoke ran, seemingly, forever and there were dozens and dozens of other westerns that did well on television during that era.

But ever since the “rural purge,” where the networks (especially CBS) axed all their rural-themed programming in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the western has had difficulty finding success again on television. Clearly, series like Little House on The Prairie or even Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, were set in a familiar time period and displayed a lot of the western’s conventions. But pure westerns? Little seen in the 50 years since the rural purge ended. Even HBO’s Deadwood didn’t last as long as it was supposed to (though that’s obviously no comment on its quality).*

*And similar genre mash-ups like Firefly obviously didn’t work either. 

Therefore, it is perhaps just as possible that Brisco County failed because it was so clearly a western as it is that the series failed because it featured an odd mix of western and sci-fi conventions. The western genre has had issues taking recapturing its former glory in film as well, as Hollywood has figured out how to reproduce certain western tropes (outlaw heroes, vigilante justice, the fears about culture’s development) in other contexts.

It is likely that Brisco County failed for all these reasons. Its compelling premise wasn’t the most consumable for general viewers. Maybe people just didn’t – and don’t – care about westerns. Obviously, the timeslot didn’t improve the series’ chances. And perhaps, as Cuse’s comments suggest, the series couldn’t live up to the quirky potential it presented in this two-hour pilot. Those things happen on television, and ultimately, experiments like this one are what make television so great. The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. didn’t work, for a number of reasons, as a long-term series. But based on this pilot, I’m guessing the 27 hours audiences did get were likely pretty intriguing, probably for some of the same reasons it eventually failed. Now we get to enjoy it on DVD and wish what could have been.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: Entertaining pilot with a great premise, but it is not surprising it failed in the long run

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