Mar 19, 2007

Review: The Wild Wild West: The Second Season

With Agent 007 shooting up the big screen and Gunsmoke and Bonanza still going strong on TV, "Spy" and "Western" were the two most popular genres of the mid-Sixties. It was an obvious move to attempt to meld them in some way. But spy fans who have never seen The Wild Wild West should not be put off by the fact that it’s a Western. Because, in fact, it’s not a Western. It is a Sixties spy show, through and through, which happens to be set in the Wild West. "Spy" is the genre (or the closest thing this rather unclassifiable show comes to having a genre) and "Western" is the setting.

By its second season (1966-67), the original "James Bond in the Wild West" concept of The Wild Wild West had drifted even further into what it really was: "The Avengers in the Wild West." Out of all the popular spy shows Hollywood produced during that glorious decade, this is the closest they ever came to an American Avengers. The Wild Wild West possesses the same delightfully off-kilter sensibility, the same surrealist bent, the same... sheer weirdness The Avengers became famous for during its Emma Peel years. And as with The Avengers, the weird factor went up when the series switched to color in its second season.

The first (black and white) season was like the monochrome episodes of The Avengers. There was a very specific landscape which never quite actually existed (a slightly fantastical version of the American frontier as opposed to an idealized "tea and crumpets"/"Village Green" version of England) populated by eccentrics and over-the-top diabolical masterminds played by seasoned character actors. The plots were out there, but fairly down to earth, like a mad big game hunter using a circus as a cover for a counterfeiting operation. They occasionally veered even further into the bizarre, but stopped short of the impossible. Then, after the switch to color and all the psychedelic opportunities that it offered, the impossible became the norm. Like The Avengers, secret service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) found themselves facing extraordinary threats–like man-eating plants and shrink rays–on a weekly basis.

Right off the bat, the premiere episode of the first color season gives a good indication of what to expect. Our heroes face a villainous organization known as the Eccentrics, and true to their name they boast a roster of even more unusual villains than Jim and Arte had faced before. Victor Buono (who also played a different villain in the series pilot) guest stars as the chief Eccentric, a magician. His tricks include fantastic electrical fields and the apparent ability to shoot lightning out of his hands. He and his gang (including Richard Pryor as a mad ventriloquist and a supposedly English knife-thrower with a cockney accent far worse than Dick Van Dyke’s) plot to replace the President of Mexico with a double for nefarious purposes. Hardly the stuff of Gunsmoke! Not content to be naturalistic, the art direction employs loud, vibrant carnival colors to accentuate the bizarreness of the situations.

From there on, each episode is more wild than the one before it. In "Night of the Golden Cobra," Jim is captured by Indians. No, not the Native American kind; the Hindu variety! He’s taken to a maharajah’s palace on the plains where he has to contend with cobras and tigers and... a dancing gorilla? Yes, the palace entertainment actually includes a dancing gorilla. That’s how weird this show is! (I assumed it must be Arte in one of his more ridiculous disguises, but I was wrong. It was supposed to be a real ape.) Weird, yes, but endlessly fun. I love The Avengers, and by comparison most other spy shows from the period really seem too conventional. It’s great to discover another show where the secret agent has to use wits and gadgets to defeat Indian princes right out of the Arabian Nights. (Yes, I know, I’m mixing my Eastern cultures, but that’s exactly what they do on the program.)

The weirdest episode of all features the return of Season One’s most memorable villain: the diminutive Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played by Michael Dunn as a sort of demented midget version of Woody Allen. West’s gadget’s may be anachronistic (a miniature blowtorch hidden in his heel), but Loveless’s are the stuff of science fiction! He gives Jim a cigar that shrinks him down to the size of a doll. It’s a great (if utterly preposterous) moment when Jim wakes up and the camera pulls out to reveal he’s tiny, lying in the middle of a giant bed. (Loveless’s girlfriend, Antoinette, has sewn him a doll-size version of his own suit so he needn’t go naked.) Things get even weirder when Loveless sics his (comparatively giant) house cat on the mouse-like spy, then celebrates by doing a jig on a table and performing a duet with Antoinette of the Beach Boys’ "Sloop John B!" Yes, The Wild Wild West truly lives up to the two "wilds" in its title. (The Avengers tread oddly similar territory that same year when Steed became shrunken down to a few inches in "Mission... Highly Improbable," but beat WWW to the punch with man-eating plants, which it had served up the previous season in "The Man-Eater of Surrey Green.")

One thing The Wild Wild West has that The Avengers never really went in for (Cybernauts excepted) is recurring villains, and Loveless is the primary antagonist. Dunn is great, and casts a long shadow over the whole series. He only appears in four of the twenty-eight episodes presented here, but leaves such an impression that you could swear he was in all of them! And each appearance tops the last in terms of outlandish plots for world domination or revenge. The next time we encounter the diminutive mastermind, he’s inexplicably disguised as Robin Hood, and his thugs as Merry Men. Why is never explained (the American Indians he’s trying to impress would hardly relate to medieval English legends!) but it really doesn’t need to be. Clearly the main reason is to present Jim and Arte with the surreal image of a knight in full armor in the middle of the Wild West. And it does provide a striking visual–and also some levity. When Jim is challenged to a mace duel with the knight (really Loveless inside a suit of armor with mechanical legs), Arte asks him, "Have you ever fought with a mace before?"

"Fought with one?" ponders Jim. "I’ve never even seen one!"

Loveless’s plot itself is fairly standard (release a deadly balloon over Washington D.C.), but his methods are still unnecessarily bizarre. In fact, the most typical Western plot of the season comes against the backdrop of Loveless’s most fantastic scheme when he recruits the seven fastest guns in the West to take Jim out. How does he lure West to this trap? By devising paintings that act as dimensional portals (it somehow involves harmonics, for the scientifically inquisitive among you) and placing them in museums so that thieves can move in and out of the pictures undetected and steal crown jewels! Despite the crazy sci-fi premise, we get to see the heroic duo using old-fashioned brains and brawn to win the day. Arte uses cunning to waylay quick-draw assassin Lightning McCoy, and Jim uses his own quick draw to beat him. It’s precisely this duality (the mundane with the bizarre, the Western with the Spy) that makes The Wild Wild West so infinitely entertaining. Even the episodes without Loveless contain outlandish threats (women from Venus, an underwater city designed to wreak havoc with shipping) in this spirit.

CBS/Paramount’s Season 2 DVD set again comes packaged in double slim-packs, making it nicely compact on your shelf. The artwork and copy on the back seem to deliberately downplay the weirdness and present it as more of a conventional Western, which is strange and misleading. The transfers look great, bursting with the sort of vivid color only seen in the Sixties. The one big disappointment of this set is its lack of extras (aside from trailers for other CBS shows, most notably Mission: Impossible). Since many studios don’t include any extras at all on their classic television releases, this might not even stand out except for the fact that Season One was loaded with very impressive bonus features, such as audio commentaries, interviews, and episode introductions by the incredibly charismatic Robert Conrad. Where is Conrad on Season Two? After setting the bar so high with their first release, Paramount really dropped the ball this time around. I hope they correct that with the third season, because the color episodes have a different feel from their black and white forebears, and I’d love to hear Mr. Conrad’s thoughts on them as well. Despite that one omission, though, this is an excellent presentation of an excellent, wonderfully bizarre series that definitely deserves a watch, especially for Avengers fans.

No comments: