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Brisco County, Jr. made steampunk mainstream (and fun) in the '90s
If you were to pitch a show like The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. in 2019, the premise might sound played out.
Picture this: A Western, but with huge science fictional elements, wink-wink-nudge-nudge camp value, and a huge infusion of intentional anachronisms. Basically, if you've seen Wild Wild West (1999) or are a fan of Wynonna Earp you might yawn. But in 1993 (yep, the same debut year as Deep Space Nine and seaQuest), a show like this was probably the goofiest and riskiest sci-fi TV series ever created. And its sensibilities quietly made the notion of "steampunk" very mainstream.
Co-created by screenwriters Carlton Cuse and Jeffery Boam, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. followed the tongue-in-cheek misadventures of the titular cowboy Brisco County, played by veteran genre actor Bruce Campbell.
These days, you'd think of casting Campbell as a massive nostalgia stunt, mostly because nearly every horror fan on the planet will forever associate him with his chain-saw-wielding anti-hero Ash from the Sam Raimi films The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness. And although the first Evil Dead came out in 1981, it's relevant to remember that the third film in that series came out in 1992, just one year before Brisco County, Jr. debuted on Fox. So, instead of, say, casting the guy from Jaws in your underwater '90s TV show, Brisco County, Jr. put a cult favorite actor in his prime into the center saddle of an offbeat, funny genre TV show that was pretty tailor-made for a cult audience.
Everything about the campy sensibility of Brisco County, Jr. was perfect for a savvy nerd audience who already "got it." And Campbell didn't need to even try to be funny to make the show work; the show was pretty much made for him. Need someone to give a corny side-eye at a stick of dynamite? Campbell's got this. Brisco the character wasn't exactly Han Solo, but I find it hard to believe Nathan Fillion would have had a career without this show existing first.
The rest of the cast was equally charming and hilarious, too. As a kid, my favorite character was easily Bowler (Julius Carry), a bounty hunter cowboy, who, yes, wore a bowler hat, hence his quasi-superhero name. Is it necessary to mention there was a talking horse named Comet?
But beyond all of this, Brisco County Jr. was a unique science fiction show because it managed to do steampunk-style storytelling without being too heavy-handed.
In the very first episode, Brisco rides a rocket in order to save the day. If this had been a mainstream motion picture, this scene, specifically, probably wouldn't be considered good. But if you were a reader of Starlog who liked anachronisms in your science fiction — specifically the idea that futuristic technology could exist in a bronze-gold environment and often be powered by steam — everything about this show became the naturalistic sci-fi alternative to more buttoned-up space sci-fi like Deep Space Nine or Babylon 5.
In other words, this show was having a good time with science fiction in ways that few other shows could even attempt at the time. For the most part, doing really earnest steampunk doesn't work on film — and this show seemed to know that. So, itself apart by being a steampunk romp.
And speaking of buttoned-up 1993 sci-fi like DS9, one striking similarity between that show and Brisco County, Jr. was the presence of a sci-fi MacGuffin called an "orb." DS9 fans remember what a Star Trek orb looked like, but on Brisco County, Jr. an "orb" was an artifact that looked rejected from an unused Indiana Jones movie. (Which could have been the case, actually. Co-creator Jeffery Boam wrote the screenplay for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)
For those who haven't seen all (or any) of Brisco County, Jr., I'll save you the spoiler about what the orb actually does in this show; let's just say that this one single object proves the show is 100 percent in the science fiction camp. But, unlike some more earnest sci-fi shows today, Brisco County, Jr. was totally kidding around about all the fake-retro-tech and sci-fi mysteries.
The best part? It didn't care if everybody got the joke.