Judge P.S. Colbert would kill for thirteen weeks on ABC in 1975.
"You're not gonna get a fair fight on the Barbary Coast."
Legend has it that the Barbary Coast area of San Francisco, circa 1880, was a lawless patch of Bayside turf, rife with drinkers, gamblers, grifters, corrupt politicians, and murderous riff-raff in various shapes and sizes. That's the legend established by the "Barbary Coast" TV movie pilot, anyways.
The area had become so wild and wooly, in fact, that a group of white-hooded crusaders (actually an off-shoot branch of former KKK members), see a ripe opportunity to ingratiate themselves by engaging in secretive vigilante justice. Those seeking recourse to the lawlessness have only two men in town that they to turn to: Jeff Cable (William Shatner, Boston Legal) and Cash Conover (Dennis Cole, Bearcats!).
Cable works under cover for the Feds in a variety of disguises that usually require great amounts of fake hair and a broad (read: bad) fake ethnic accent. We know who he is when he's at home, but where he is when he's at home? It's a secret, and doubtless the last place any Barbary Coaster would suspect: behind the revolving book case in the upstairs office of Conover, owner and operator of the Golden Gate Casino, where liquor, gambling, and high-kicking chorus girls are readily available from open to close.
The man called Cash ("Nobody knows if that's his name or his religion") would be happy enough to stay out of Mr. Cable's affairs and simply keep to running the "frisky, sporty, classiest joint on Pacific Street," but he's indebted to the undercover agent for getting him out of a jam after a duel that resulted in the death of a Louisiana Governor's son.
Barbary Coast: The Complete Series contains the TV movie pilot in addition to the 13 episodes that ran on ABC from September, 1975 to January, 1976. There are some notable differences between the pilot and the series, however. First: Doug McClure (The Virginian) takes over for Cole in the role of Cash Conover.
But, foremost: The series takes a considerably lighter tone than the movie-of-the-week that inspired it. Basically, Barbary Coast was a victim of circumstances, most of which are time-related. The 1975-76 season was the first in twenty years not to feature Gunsmoke, and its demise signaled the official death of the weekly Western as a network TV staple. In fact, Barbary Coast was considered a long-shot from the get go (despite co-starring two beloved TV series regulars) precisely because it was a Western!
Okay…Western-ish. Essentially a stitch-up of spare parts from The Wild, Wild West and Alias Smith And Jones (two series that sought to expand the genre by re-imagining it, with secret agent capers and modified counter-culture fashions, respectively), Barbary Coast was further—and possibly, fatally—handicapped by its early evening time slot, which was officially known back then as "Family hour," when the FCC decreed that if violence and sexual innuendo weren't completely removed, they at least be neutered to the point of ineffectiveness.
And so, what we have here is a Western with its teeth removed. There are no deaths (at least not on-screen), there are no shoot-outs (at least not where the bullets ever hit their intended targets), and the infamous "good time gals" of the coast inevitably turn out to be "good girls" who bark but never bite. Now, it may sound as if I'm baying for blood and carnality from a prime time 'seventies network series—a ludicrous proposition—but, really, what good is a Western set in a notoriously lawless town if nobody's playing for keeps?
I can easily imagine the Rebuttal Witnesses now: Hey, Judge! You, the staunch defender of Gentle Ben, Vega$ and The Bionic Woman: how dare you complain about this series' lack of authenticity! What's more, it's got guest appearances by Tige Andrews of The Mod Squad, Lynda Day George from Mission: Impossible, and Bernard Fox (Dr. Bombay, of Bewitched) to name a few. Why, Bill Bixby, The Incredible Hulk himself, shows up as a director—twice! Isn't this exactly the kinda light-hearted, pre-Reality TV era nonsense that you seem to revel in?!
A fair point. Admittedly I kinda liked Barbary Coast at times, but those times never stretched to the length of an episode. For me, there were too many pratfalls in the town's muddy streets; too many barroom brawls with lots of accompanying tambourine and wheezy harmonica—just to let you know that this is comic action. And how much old-timey pianna music (played in the Shakey's Pizza Parlor style) can a man be expected to take?
If such goings-on corresponds to your taste, I have good news. Acorn presents Barbary Coast: The Complete Series in fine style. Despite a cautious "Due to the age of these programs…you may notice occasional flaws" message before the festivities start, these full-frame transfers look remarkably good, with solid color schemes, strong black levels and yes, occasional flaws. As for the mono soundtrack, it does the dialog proud, and don't you worry about missing a single note of those old piano roll blues! Hard of hearing? You're covered with English SDH subtitles. No extras, though.
Honestly, If I watch Barbary Coast in future, it won't be by choice, but by default. Don't get me wrong: Shatner and McClure made a great team, if only they were given a real chance to play. Nonetheless, ardent fans and collectors of both stars should find nothing to complain about with this set.
Guilty, if pleasurable on occasion.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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