This was an interesting request to get, since it both didn’t come through the request page and also is a bit of a random choice for an episode within a random choice of a series.
Readers of this page will be aware that I consider Bruce Campbell to be an amazing actor, and this is… well, nowhere near the best show he’s done, but it’s still a really fun series. When I first watched this show when I was 6, it blew my mind. It had action, humor, cowboys, sci-fi, chins, gunfights, bowler hats, you name it. But, it also got cancelled after a season, didn’t really get re-run at all, and, honestly, I forgot about it until I was in college. I’m surprised it isn’t streaming on any service currently, since this is exactly the kind of series that you should binge-watch, but I guess Fox wants too much money for it.
So, here’s the premise of the series: It’s 1893 and a gang of outlaws led by John Bly (Billy Drago) are captured by legendary lawman Brisco County (R. Lee Ermey, RIP). However, on the way to their trial, the gang escapes, killing County. At the same time, nearby, a strange Orb is discovered, which appears to grant supernatural powers to people who touch it. The newly-freed Bly shows interest in the Orb. Wishing to prevent Bly from getting the Orb and running amok through the West, a group of Robber Barons, usually called the members of the Westerfield Club in San Francisco, hire County’s son, Brisco County, Jr. (Bruce Campbell), a Harvard-educated lawyer who is now a bounty hunter, to track down Bly and his gang. To track his progress, the Barons assign timid lawyer Socrates Poole (Christian Clemenson) to act as a go-between and assistant to County. Other recurring characters include: Lord Bowler (Julius Carry), a rival bounty-hunter who usually teams up with County at the end of the episode; Professor Albert Wickwire (John “I was the bad guy in all the Killer Tomatoes sequels” Astin), a scientist who usually creates steampunk inventions that drive the episodes; and Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford), a singer and con artist who is Brisco’s main love interest.
Now that you know all that, forget most of it, because this episode’s mostly a standalone. If you’re wondering why I bothered to write that whole summary if most of it doesn’t apply, that’s because 2 more episodes of this show have since been requested, and I’m gonna copy-paste when I get to them.
This episode begins with Brisco receiving a telegram from Socrates asking for help. Brisco finds his assistant in jail in Gateway, Louisiana, having been gambling… poorly. In fact, it turns out that Poole had been entrusted with a large amount of money by the Robber Barons to buy a plantation and ended up losing it. However, Poole says that he’s been cheated and refused to pay, which resulted in him being thrown in the hoosegow. It turns out the gambler who beat him is Brett Bones (Xander Berkeley), a member of John Bly’s gang. Brisco forms a plan to get him out of jail and to get Bones at the same time.
Brisco dons a typical Western gambler’s outfit and the name Roscoe Merriweather and introduces himself to Bones as a man looking for a poker game. At the time, a young man named Wylie Turner (Montae Russell) shows up with the law looking to have Bones arrested for murdering his brother. It turns out, however, that Bones has a pardon for all crimes signed by the Governor of Louisiana. Brisco agrees to meet with Bones on his riverboat later.
Brisco returns to town, only to find Wylie being attacked by several men. Brisco saves him and finds out that Wylie’s brother was killed by Bones because the Turner Brothers had invented a new fabric. They tried to sell it, but it’s Bones’s town and he wanted his cut. They refused, he committed murder with seeming impunity. The fact that the Turners were black and this is Louisiana in 1893 never comes up as why he might have done so. He sends Wylie to town while he goes to confront Bones.
On the Riverboat, Brisco cheats at cards to beat Bones, earning Socrates’s freedom. He returns to his hotel room to find an unconscious Wylie and Bones’s henchman Mr. Hatchet (Don Stroud), who knocks Brisco and Poole out and takes back the money. Brisco decides they are going to have to bankrupt Bones if they stand a chance of getting rid of him, so he wires the Robber Barons for $50,000 and calls in Lord Bowler, offering to pay him to win a boxing match against one of Bones’s goons. Bones’s boxer, Dynamite Sullivan, is approached by Wylie in secret, offering him a role as a boxer “on the circuit” if he takes a dive against Bowler. Brisco places a large wager on Bowler against Bones. Sullivan proceeds to take a dive on the first punch, but Bones can’t cover his bet, which Brisco publicly calls out to Bones’s ire.
Dixie arrives in town to see Bones and almost blows Brisco’s cover. Brisco goes to the riverboat to collect the money but is captured and tied to a giant wheel of fortune for Mr. Hatchet to chuck his namesake at. Brisco manages to escape in the nick of time, then sends Socrates to Bones acting as a rat. Socrates proposes that Bones makes a large wager on a re-match between Bowler and Dynamite which would bankrupt Brisco’s character. Brisco and Dixie have a fight which Bones overhears.
Bowler is excited for a rematch until he finds out that the first fight was fixed, but Brisco offers him enough money to stay in. Bones grills Dixie about Brisco’s true identity, which she ends up divulging. That night, Bones has secretly moved the fight onto the riverboat to keep Brisco from capturing him. Despite getting the living crap kicked out of him, Bowler actually manages to stay standing for the full 12 rounds of the fight and even knocks Dynamite out. While everyone is focused on the fight, Brisco and Dixie sneak away and take over the bridge of the ship. As Bowler stands victorious, Dixie pulls the boat over onto the side of the river… in Mississippi, which makes Bones’s pardon useless. As Bones is taken away, he finally loses his calm, collected façade and screams at Brisco. Brisco and Dixie part ways until next time, and Brisco and Poole ride away discussing the new fabric that Brisco bought from Wylie: Denim.
This is not my favorite episode of the show and it doesn’t quite have the steampunk and more overtly anachronistic elements of most of the episodes. However, what it does have is that it’s a tribute to The Sting, which is one of my favorite movies, and to Maverick, a great show starring James Garner whose best episode inspired The Sting. At one point, a riff from “The Entertainer,” the Scott Joplin theme song to the movie is heard. Brett Bones’s name is a reference to Bret Maverick, from the latter show, and Brisco’s outfit in the episode is a tribute to Brett’s usual attire.
Brisco’s plan is basically a nested series of gambits in order to eliminate Bones’s immunity, including everything that Bones believes he has learned which gives him an advantage. This is a traditional aspect of a high-level con, feeding information to the mark from a seemingly-adversarial source in order to force them to take actions they think are undermining the con, but are actually playing into it. Similarly, it’s a common strategy to humiliate the mark, especially if they’re a big shot, in order to make them more desperate to beat the con.
While there aren’t a huge number of anachronisms in the episode, the reveal at the end that denim is the brothers’ invention is, since denim had been invented more than 50 years before the episode in France (fun fact: Denim is short for de Nimes, a French city), and Levi Strauss had begun marketing denim jeans in 1873. Also, while Boxing with gloves existed in 1893, Bowler’s dancing style wouldn’t really come into being for 60 years. “The Entertainer,” too, is an anachronism, as it wasn’t written until 1902.
This episode also contains one of the more elegant and bloodless captures of the 10 members of the Bly gang. This matches up with the typically more peaceful tone of Maverick compared to the other westerns of the time, which helped at the time of the show’s original run, since parents’ groups were complaining about the show’s violence. Brisco even makes a point of not carrying his gun in this episode.
Overall, I do really like this episode, and I think it might have wider appeal than many other episodes of the show. Give it a watch sometime. Like, now.
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