Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I Was A Teenage Nerd: The Unkindest Cut of All

I never caught Firefly while it was on TV, but I could always sympathize with the diehard fans (“Browncoats”) who complained that it got a raw deal from the network. That happened to my favorite show, too.

It was ritual. It was sacrament. By 6:45, I had damn well better be in the car and on the way to the McDonald’s drive-thru, and back in front of the TV by 7, or there would most definitely be hell to pay.

It was the fall of 1993. I was twelve, and in the sixth grade, and Fox had the best damn TV show ever on its lineup.

No, not “The X-Files.” “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.”
Set in an Old West on the cusp of the 20th Century, it told the story of the titular young bounty hunter (Bruce Campbell in the role that made him my acting hero long before I ever saw Army of Darkness) who was tracking down, one by one, the men who had killed his father. Helped by the reluctant Lord Bowler, the nebbish Socrates Poole, the beautiful Dixie Cousins, Comet the Wonder Horse, and Professor Albert Wickwire (the closest thing to a live-action portrayal of Gyro Gearloose there’s ever been), each week he grew closer and closer to a final showdown with John Bly over the mysterious object known only as “The Orb.”

Western action/adventure, Marxian comedy, a dash of sci-fi intrigue; how could I not love this show? And I loved this show. Loved it, loved it, loved it. I loved Brisco’s quick, Spider-Man-style wit. I loved the goofy references to early twen-cen technology in the Professor’s scenes. I loved the fact that Dixie wasn’t just Brisco’s girl, or his opposite number, she was his equal, his better half. I loved Lord Bowler’s hat. I loved the endless running gag of “Pete,” the worst bounty hunter in the West (nobody touch his piece). I loved that each episode had two “chapters,” like an old dime novel (I had no idea what dime novels were, you understand, but the similarity to the Hardy Boys books I still loved to read was inescapable). I loved that the horse thought he was people.

I was given to understand that there was some show on after “Brisco,” something with the FBI and aliens and some such. I didn’t care. Brisco was all I needed, all I wanted from TV. Even after the John Bly plot came to an abrupt and somewhat nonsensical end, I still enjoyed the show, watching as he defended a man accused of murder (in what’s still one of the best examples of procedural detective fiction I’ve ever seen on TV), took part in a bizarre bounty hunter’s convention, changed the infant Prince of China’s diapers, and helped avert a war between the US and Mexico in a two-part finale, the first part of which ended in the ultimate cliffhanger, with our heroes facing a firing squad. They made it through, of course, and Lord Bowler promised they would return “after a brief hiatus.”

So you can imagine my dismay when the show didn’t show up on the fall schedule. What happened? I’d seen a TV Guide in the Homeland Supermarket that said it was on their “Save Our Shows” list, so I knew it wasn’t doing as well as it could have, but still, that show with the aliens was doing well enough to come back. What gave?

For many years, I blamed Urkel. In fact, I still blame Urkel, just because I can. I eventually, though, saw Fox treat more shows the same way: “The Critic.” “The George Carlin Show.” “Roar.” (Fuck you, time’s gonna tell on that one.) “Futurama.” In retrospect, it’s surprising that “The Simpsons” was able to survive on a network that seemed determined to squash all quality TV that passed within its range. I mean, “Brisco” gets cancelled, but “Martin” and “Living Single” run for years? What the hell is that about?

In fact, “Brisco” is probably the reason I never bothered with “Babylon 5.” Another intelligent, character-driven genre show with an ongoing plotline? Why bother? This one wasn’t even on a network; it wouldn’t last a month. (Of course, I now belatedly realize that if “Brisco” had gone with cable, it probably would have lasted longer, and had less creative interference to boot.)

“Brisco” taught me a hard lesson: That the entertainment business wasn’t interested in entertaining me. If they could make money putting out stuff I happened to like, great, but the wonderful, the sublime, the stuff that spoke directly to my geeky heart, that it would do everything in its power to stop. After years of blowing off the “idiot box” and “vast wasteland” arguments as the rantings of backwards media ninnies (“bus stop mothers,” my father and I called them), I came to realize the truth behind the anger. How could I not, when Brisco’s theme music was appropriated within the year by NBC for use with its NFL broadcasts?

As of this writing, “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” still has not made it to DVD. And this is in an era when “Full House” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” have multiple season sets. Hell, I’m pretty sure “Mantis,” the unwatchable dreck that replaced “Brisco,” has gotten the DVD treatment by now. (Although I will admit I was rather fond of Roger Rees, and was very happy to see him show up again in “The West Wing,” this time working with much better material.)

This is what the mainstream had, and still has, to offer us nerds: A taste of wonderful goodness that pushes every button we have and makes us squeal with joy, snatched away as quickly as it came.

Why do we want to fit in with them again?

1 comment:

Ed Cunard said...

This is what the mainstream had, and still has, to offer us nerds: A taste of wonderful goodness that pushes every button we have and makes us squeal with joy, snatched away as quickly as it came.

Why do we want to fit in with them again?

For the fans, I have no idea. Acceptance? More people to talk about this stuff with?

For the companies: $$$. Like Method Man said, "cash moves everything around me."

It's one of those weird things for me--I don't get upset about cancellations anymore, because I work at a television station group, and I read the trade magazines, and I "get" the business (which, much like comic books, rewards "consensus popularity" over quality and, again, for good reason--kerching, kerching). However, I'm still mightily irked that licensing rights prevent me from having a Region 1 Ally McBeal DVD collection, so I feel your Brisco pain.

Then again, the music industry that gave us that Method Man quote is also ruled by money. "Dollar dollar bill, y'all" indeed.