President Ulysses S. Grant may have been one of the worst presidents in history, but Judge Mike Rubino believes he had some darn good Secret Service agents.
"No disguising it, the third season is wilder than ever."
When I was a youngin', I went to see the Barry Sonnenfeld/Will Smith adaptation, Wild Wild West, and was pretty disappointed. Now, at the time I had never heard of or seen the original television show. I was instead just a big fan of Men in Black, which had been released two years prior, and I was hoping for something equally as cool. Will Smith's re-make of this classic television show was a pretty loose, gaudy translation, filled with giant steam-powered robots and little round sunglasses. Thankfully, this classic '60s series is almost nothing like that train wreck (pun intended).
Facts of the Case
The name is West, James West. He's an elite member of President Grant's Secret Service, sworn to protect the interests of the President and this struggling nation. He travels the country with his partner, the inventive and oft-disguised Artemus Gordon, in his high-tech train car, The Wanderer. Each episode, our heroes must outwit would-be dictators, revolutionary murderers, spies, thieves, and Native Americans with a combination of Old West fighting skills and sci-fi gadgets.
Here are the episodes in Season Three.
The first producer of The Wild Wild West was one of the original rights holders of the Ian Fleming novel Casino Royale. When he couldn't get the funding or support necessary to turn James Bond into a viable franchise, he took the character of Bond and put him in a more reliable, and popular, setting: the West. And so we have the somewhat short-lived series, The Wild Wild West, a show that breaks the barriers of standard television genres, delivering what might be the first Western-spy-science fiction television series.
James T. West (Robert Conrad, Jingle All the Way) is our heroic James Bond of the 1800s. Just like the British spy, he's debonair, seductive, clever, and a brawler; he's on His Majesty's Secret Service, to be sure, and every episode reminds us of the fact. The Wild Wild West episodes each play out like condensed Bond films, with a deranged villain hatching an absurd plot, West seducing a femme-fatale, Artemus supplying the disguises and gadgets (a la "Q"), and everything working out in the end. It's really a heck of a lot of fun, and proves that the Western atmosphere can pretty much be adapted to any genre and still work.
Like The Fugitive television series, episodes of The Wild Wild West are split up into acts, which fill an animated Mondrian-ish collage based off of the opening sequences. Essentially, the story has four main parts, each with their own minor cliffhangers, fights, and developments. The show works well within this formula, and never tries to make things too complicated. The plots are usually elaborate in scale, yet contained in execution (mainly because this is a television series on a fixed budget). In "The Night of the Bubbling Death," our heroes have to save the U.S. Constitution from a bunch of thugs trying to secede from the Union; in "The Night of the Samurai," West and Gordon have to recover a stolen sword in order to maintain relations with Japan; and in "The Night of the Falcon," they must thwart a plan to blow up Denver. As you can tell, the storylines are varied and invention (and they all follow the same naming convention). This becomes the show's main selling point: The combination of science fiction and the Western setting allow for a historical universe where almost anything is possible, and everything is always a lot of fun. I was hard-pressed to find an episode that was boring, even when the storyline itself was rather shallow.
This show was on the air around the same time, and channel, as Mission: Impossible, one of the defining espionage shows of Cold War era television. While both shows may feature nifty gadgets, masks, and spying, The Wild Wild West is decidedly campier. This third season has a carefree air about it, as if it can do no wrong. With Season One debuting in black and white, and Season Two making the transition into the color world, this third time around finds everyone getting in to the groove of things. The opening credits, which feature an animated musical sequence involving the various aspects of everyday Western life, set the mood for the entire series: it's a light-hearted Saturday morning cartoon masquerading as a live action prime-time television series. Strangely, at times the show veers from campy fun to terribly violent—which inevitably led to the show's cancellation after the fourth season.
The Wild Wild West's main stars, Conrad and Ross Martin (Artemus), are generally great at what they do. Conrad is slick, and adept at doing his own fight choreography and stunts. Martin, who appeared as a character actor in plenty of different TV shows, including The Twilight Zone, does a great job as the face-changing gadget man. He pulls out all sorts of accents, mannerisms, and Vaudevillian techniques to play scads of characters in every episode. The villains are generally over-the-top and suitably maniacal. They'll give their expository speeches and get their comeuppance each time, including that wily dwarf, Dr. Loveless. One of the best villains in the season is Zeke Montgomery in "The Night of the Legion of Death." Zeke (played by Anthony Zerbe, better known as Mathius from Omega Man), a deformed self-righteous politico, is manipulating a weak willed governor to break away from the Union. He's a powerful character actor who is put to work giving grandiose speeches throughout the episode. Talk about perfect casting.
The video quality is on average pretty good, but there are some occasional instances of grain. There is also an issue that may be from the original negatives or from the DVD transfer, but there are traces of white, snowy artifacting that sometimes jets across the stream. Think of it like a VHS tape that needs a little tracking. It's not enough to ruin anything, but the fact that it's there is a little bothersome. The sound quality is much better, however, and Richard Markowitz's theme song (usually uncredited) comes in nice and clear.
Unfortunately, Paramount continues their streak of recent TV-DVD releases with no extra content. While Season One was released with some fine extra features and commentary, Season Three is barren. It does feature some excellent packaging: the six discs are broken up in to three slim line cases with a nicely designed outer box.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is any complaint about the show, it's that things seem all too simple for our heroes, to the point where at times the show loses all suspense. The Wild Wild West never ceases to be a fun and entertaining romp, but when every gadget comes out of nowhere and easily helps James West escape, things become a little flat. Every bad guy falls over with a simple punch, and every girl is overtaken with a mere kiss. It's pulpy, sure, but can't things go wrong at least sometimes?
The Wild Wild West may not be as deep or suspenseful as Mission: Impossible or James Bond, but every episode manages to be a heck of a good time. The show melds three different genres into a well-oiled adventure locomotive, and this third season works everything in to an effective, consistent formula. If you've never seen the show before, just pick an episode and go with it.
Guilty of being a great sci-fi/spy/Western relic from prime time's past.
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