Back in 1993, two of my favorite shows of my middle school years debuted, airing back to back on Fox: The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and X-Files. Only one is sitting on my DVD shelf today, and it is not X-Files. (That show jumped the shark for me around season 4.) The star of Brisco County Jr. is none other than Bruce Campbell, who—fun fact—attended my alma mater Western Michigan University. Which has nothing to do with why I love him. Brisco is why I am a Bruce Campbell fan.
Let Us Turn The Clock Back 100 Years
The year is 1893, and the setting is the Wild American West. United States Marshal Brisco County, Sr. is murdered by infamous outlaw John Bly and his gang. Vowing revenge, his son, a Harvard-educated lawyer turned bounty hunter Brisco County, Jr. (henceforth referred to as Brisco), is hired by the Westerfield Club. They want him to hunt down Bly and gang, who have been putting a damper on their robber baroning. The Westerfield Club is based in San Francisco, California, and much of the action takes place in this state. Brisco rides a horse named Comet whom he holds conversations with while adventuring. Though Comet is not voiced, he does show intelligence.
Brisco’s assigned liaison to the Club is the nerdy and significantly less adventurous lawyer Socrates Poole. (Played by Christian Clemenson, who went to Harvard himself). Poole relays instructions and compensation to Brisco as well as becoming a friend and helper.
Lord Bowler (Julius Carry) initially serves as Brisco’s rival, later his partner. Bowler (as he is called in the show) is a no nonsense bounty hunter and master tracker. He has been compared by Carry and others to historical figure deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River.
Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford) is a recurring and enduring love interest for Brisco, as well as saloon singer and con artist. She is often saved by Brisco when she gets in over her head. But Dixie can also hold her own and is far from innocent.
John Astin portrays the recurring character Professor Albert Wickwire, whose inventions are often anachronistic. In this way, Wickwire brings in a lot of steampunk elements, using technology of the time to create items we might recognize today.
“The Coming Thing”
Brisco is a forward-looking, intelligent guy—remember, he did attend Harvard. When it comes to solving problems, Brisco would much rather rely on his wits than his gun. This is what draws him to Prof. Wickwire and what makes the more physical Bowler the perfect foil and compatriot. He often speaks of the wonders being invented in the world and what the new 20th century will bring. It’s a purposeful mirroring of what was happening in our own 1993. In Brisco’s own words, this is “The Coming Thing,” though it is not one thing, but a collection of many things—it’s the Future.
Speaking of the future, the show’s McGuffin is the Orb. AKA a big metallic-looking ball with rods sticking out of it that exhibits various supernatural powers. Bly wants this Orb desperately. The Orb is never quite explained in the show, but series creator Carlton Cuse has said that the Orb represents faith. It responds positively or negatively to the intentions of those who attempt to use it. The Orb can kill on contact. But also heals Brisco when he is injured and allows him to time travel in order to save a friend. Brisco isn’t the only time traveler in the show, though I won’t say more as that would be spoiling things.
What I Love About Brisco County, Jr.
What sets Brisco apart from other Wild West shows is not only its science fiction leanings, but the emphasis on using smarts to solve problems. The show’s other creator, Jeffrey Boam, had also workedocoutyjr on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Brisco is often, inevitably perhaps, compared to Indiana Jones, another college-educated adventurer who often relies on brains rather than brawn.
Not being particularly brawny myself, I loved all of the cleverness of Brisco. What really caught my imagination as a young storyteller, however, was the mash-up of genres. The movie Wild Wild West wouldn’t come out for another six years, and when it did, it reminded me of Brisco. So, this was my first exposure to a blending of scifi and westerns. The latter is a genre I largely ignored prior to Brisco because I found it shallow and tedious. Last Crusade was one of my favorite movies as a kid. So, having that same feel mixed with a bit of humor and put into a weekly TV show was fantastic.
Another series that I would compare Brisco to is the Canadian TV show Murdoch Mysteries (2008—present), which is also set in the 1890s (it begins in 1895) but across the continent in the city of Toronto. Title character Murdoch is also a brain-over-brawn law man (a detective) who is enamored with the potential of the future century. His dabbles in inventing also result in anachronistic creations. It’s almost a shame 15+ years separate the shows in our time, because I am so here for a crossover in which Brisco and Murdoch team up to solve a murder!
As I said before, I own and continue to watch Brisco on DVD, an inheritance from my father, who was a fan of both scifi and westerns, so this was the perfect show for him. When I was first introduced to steampunk as an adult, Brisco was one of the first things to come to my mind, and it is perhaps one of the reasons that I don’t connect easily to the London, England dominance of the steampunk genre.
Despite lasting only one season, there is a complete story with rich, likable characters. If you are looking for a genre-expanded adventure mixed of cleverness and humor, Brisco is a must-see.
About the Author
Crysta K. Coburn has been writing award-winning stories her whole life. She is a journalist, fiction writer, poet, editor, podcast co-host, and one-time rock lyrics writer. She has contributed stories to Valves and Vixens: Steampunk Erotica volumes one and two, Cosmic Encounters, and is also the editor of The Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CrystaKCoburn and on the web at crystakcoburn.blogspot.com. You can also like her on Goodreads and Amazon. If you are a fan of bat-poop crazy films, check out the podcast she co-hosts with her husband “Cinema Guano” from your favorite podcast supplier.