The Wild Wild West
In our current media-saturated, cynically-ironic time, it's easy to fall into the trap of liking something because it somehow "hits" the geek nerve, believing that if "you don't like (insert name show), you don't get it). As viewers, we're so jaded that some shows that are straightforward and simple seem...well, native. We also tend to put our emphasis less on originality and quality and more on anything that references other shows. It's the fine line between nostalgia and appreciation....and getting reacquainted with this month's featured show has been a treat.
I watched a few episodes when I was younger; didn't really get into it until a marathon on TBS in the 1990s. It was steampunk before there was such a word - in fact, it embraced that idea, as well as pulp literature, the then-prevalent trend of spy shows, and the ever-popular Western. It's a show that, quite honestly, has not dated at all....and that was brought to an early end not by fading ratings or creativity, but by social forces beyond its control.
I'm talking, of course, about The Wild Wild West...a show that not only spawned a horrible theatrical spin-off, but which led the lead of that spin-off to publicly apologize to the show's lead. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
Created for CBS in 1965 by executive Michael Garrison, The Wild Wild West was initially conceived as a simple, high-concept pitch: "James Bond on horseback." Yet simply calling it that oversimplifies how clever and unique this series was - in fact, this is probably one of the most overtly pulp-influenced shows on television at that time. Because of its unique mix of gadgetry, straightforward plotting, and genre mixing, The Wild Wild West has retained a slight timelessness unlike several of its contemporaries. Much of the success of the show (which enjoys a current run on Chicago's ME-TV) is due to a great mixture of various factors.
First is the overall writing of the show - most of the plots and concepts are lifted straight from pulp literature. From the gimmick-laden vest of James West (think: Doc Savage) to the more elaborate futuristic concepts (such as mechanical men, steam-driven computer dating and a league of assassins), The Wild Wild West created a much more intricate and forward-facing universe than other shows of its era. From the diminutive tyrant Dr. Miguelito Loveless to the maniacal magician Count Manzeppi, The Wild Wild West had its share of colorful antagonists, sharing a wide swath of motivations (although the most popular involved either taking over the western territories of the United States and/or getting revenge against President Ulysses S. Grant). Most of the technology used fell well within the bounds of what was possible in the 1870s, and it's that touch that gives a slightly steampunkish sparkle to the show. The show never devolved into camp the way like other shows (like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. did in its third season), yet never took itself too seriously - it hit the right escapist tone, and is one of the better "family friendly" shows of the era.
(Ironically, the reason why it was ultimately canceled? Many parents' groups in the late 1960s began to protest against the excessive violence on television, and The Wild Wild West was one of the first casualties of that battle. It never lagged in the ratings, and even survived the temporary loss of one of its leads, but more on that later....)
Before he publicly dared people to knock batteries off his shoulder, Robert Conrad was best known for playing James West, Secret Service agent (and lead character). Playing the role with the right amount of seriousness, Robert Conrad was able to provide not only a strong dramatic center, but also a strong action-based center. (Every episode involved a highly choreographed action/stunt sequence, and not only can you see Conrad himself performing stunts, but these may have led to the show's demise). Much like William Shatner, Conrad often found himself shirtless and wearing tight pants; unlike Shatner, Conrad always seemed to be in on the joke, and although he seemed to take the work seriously, he never took himself seriously. There's a little bit of Conrad in actors ranging from Bruce Campbell to Nathan Fillion.
If you disagree with me, I will fight you. And I will win.
The other major factor was Ross Martin's work as Artemus Gordon, West's partner and counterpoint on the show. As a master of disguise, it would have been easy to pull the actor-plays-a-role-then-pulls-off-a-latex-mask reveal (think Mission: Impossible), but Martin did a lot of character work. In fact, many of his "disguises" integrated both intricate make-up work and really strong character work, integrating accents, body language, and really building out what could essentially be "joke" performances. (Martin once remarked to Johnny Carson, "Conrad does all his own stunts; I do all my own acting."). Watch any episode and you can see an easy, free flowing chemistry between the two actors. (However, in season four Martin was waylaid by a broken leg followed by a near-fatal heart attack, resulting in a series of guest sidekicks, with a notable appearance by Alan Hale, Jr., which included an obligatory Gilligan's Island in-joke).
After the show ended, there were two made-for-tv reunion movies in the 1970s, both of which are included in The Wild Wild West: Complete Series DVD boxed set. (Each of the four seasons, including the first season in black & white, are available separately). As far as that Will Smith movie....all I'll say is that you should read the end of this section in the Wikipedia article. You will learn what happens when you knock the batteries off of Robert Conrad's shoulder.
Some series not only hold up, but still seem fresh even after their first broadcast. The Wild Wild West is such a series, and you should sample a few episodes. It's the kind of show everyone should watch at least once.
But enough of my talking - you can always catch me as part of Comic Related's Zone 4 podcast (as well as my shenanigans on the Zone 4 Facebook page) or even catch me co-hosting The Bar Tab of Rassilon. As always, you can check out my blog or follow my other writings.
As always, thanks for reading.
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general information, please visit his blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com.
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