|The Wild Wild West: The Complete First Season (1965)
Starring: Robert Conrad, Ross Martin, Michael Dunn
Quick, stop thinking about the 1999 Will Smith/Kevin Kline film! Stop it right now, I say!!!
I’m not even kidding you. It’s absolutely unfair to the original ‘60s TV series to even think of the Barry Sonnefeld mess of a motion picture; everybody knows the movie sucked…and, seriously, when even Will Smith can’t save a picture, you know it blows. There was a great concept to be had, but it’s clear that the studio said, “Hey, it’s Will Smith and the guy who directed him in ‘Men in Black’; start working on the special effects now, and we’ll worry about getting a decent script later.” (If you’ve never seen the film, suffice it to say that they never got around to it.)
When “The Wild Wild West” premiered in 1965, it was unlike anything that had been seen on television before…except it wasn’t. Essentially, it took the best bits from several different genres and somehow managed to meld them into an all-new entity: the sci-fi spy-thriller Western.
The show, which takes place at some point during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, focuses on James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), the United States’ first two Secret Service agents. West is the charismatic gunslinger of the duo; he’s possibly the only ‘60s television character to score more pieces of ass than Captain James T. Kirk. (Seriously, I don’t think there’s a single episode where he doesn’t end up smooching and staying the night with a new femme fatale.) Gordon, meanwhile, is a master of disguise who, when he’s not wearing a fake mustache and adopting a foreign accent, is busy inventing new gadgets to use on the pair’s various assignments…and that’s where the sci-fi angle comes in.
No, it’s not dramatically sci-fi, but “The Wild Wild West” regularly rewrote history to serve its plots…and it did so with such aplomb that you had to go along with it, albeit with a knowing smirk. Although Gordon created a few items before their time – like, say, an aqualung – it generally seemed to be the villains, most notably the fiendish Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), who had the best stuff. Still, West and Gordon traveled around the country in their very own train car, one which contained a pool table; in the pilot episode, we get to see exploding pool balls and pool cues which house swords and guns; also, West kept a derringer hidden up his sleeve, which he was able to mechanically slide out at a moment’s notice.
Later seasons of the show were filmed in color, but these black and white episodes of the first season are, appropriately, darker and more dramatic. As the show progressed, there was a tendency to get a bit campy, but not during this first year. Although there’s little blood, in one episode, there’s a sunset shot of four bodies – each hanging from the end of a noose – that’s downright chilling.
There are many special features on this set, thanks to Conrad’s continuing love of the show (sadly, Martin passed away in 1981); he offers an audio introduction to each episode; there are also audio interviews with several key members of the creative staff, including producer Fred Freiberger, special effects guru Tim Smyth, and composer Richard Markowitz. There’s even the classic “go ahead, knock it off” EverReady battery ad that kept Conrad in the public eye. If there’s any disappointment, it’s the lack of actual audio commentaries, but, hey, at least Conrad had something to say about each episode.
Once you’ve taken the time to appreciate how good this series was, then watch the movie. It’s a bad movie to begin with, but when you see how badly it tarnished the reputation of the series, you’ll view in a whole different light…one that’ll make you want to go kick Barry Sonnenfeld’s ass. (Frankly, I’m surprised Conrad didn’t do it.)