Maverick Season 1

Starring: James Garner, Jack Kelly, Roger Moore

Director: Various
Released: 1957-1962

Mood: If you really want to watch a Western but you’re too tired to sit through an entire movie so you want a story that will entertain the shit out of you for 45 minutes and then wrap it all up in a neat bow so you can go to sleep satisfied and dreaming about James Garner.

“In the traditional Western, the situation was always serious, but never hopeless. In a ‘Maverick’ story, the situation is always hopeless, but never serious.”

Maverick producer Roy Huggins

I f*cking LIVE for James Garner. He was a rare actor who could be your tall-dark-and-handsome leading man as easily as he could have you busting a gut with his cheeky style of comedy. 

I first saw Garner in Maverick (the movie), which hooked me into hunting down his classics like Support Your Local Sheriff. I’d seen bits of Maverick (the series) on TV at my grandparents’ place over the years, but shamefully had never watched an entire episode until I bought the first season last year. 

Maverick is a GEM. The storytelling is just phenomenal, thanks to a roster of talented writers and occasional use of short stories by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Louis L’Amour. 

The best part is that every episode is a self-contained, 45-minute adventure – so it’s like a mini-movie. And you get 25+ episodes per season. 

If you love James Garner, get in on this brilliant black-and-white gift from the Western gods.   

Maverick’s first season follows poker player Bret Maverick (Garner), and later his brother Bart (Jack Kelly), on adventures that always involve some combination of card games, shootouts, horses, murders, false accusations, stolen money, narrow escapes, and dames. Both Maverick brothers have a way with the ladies, and there’s no shortage of pretty women needing to be rescued – or doing a little murder and flying under the radar because of their hotness.  

There are double-crosses and triple-crosses, and hijinks galore. In at least half of the episodes, Bret or Bart (or both) is accused of murder and has to find the man or woman who did it to avoid jail – or the noose. Bret is a habitual bluffer, pretending to be on the same side as the bad guys to talk his way out of confrontations. 

What I love best about Maverick is that even though it was a ’50s weeknight Western, it’s totally non-formulaic. Every episode brings something entirely new to the table

If the writers wanted Bret to buy a ship and forgo horses for an aquatic adventure, off he went. Some episodes are more dramatic, while others are pure comedy gold. I mean, have you ever seen another Western where a poker player puts “a full-blooded Arabian, imported” into the pot, and the hero ends up saddled with a camel? (Episode 7, ‘Relic of Fort Tejon’.) 

illustration of a fancy moustache

Bart Maverick was introduced for episode 8, after the producers realized that they couldn’t create episodes fast enough to keep up with the airing schedule. So they created two crews at two locations, simultaneously filming an episode with Garner and an episode with Kelly. 

They took as many steps as they could to get people on board with the sudden appearance of a new lead, like having the brothers introduce each other’s episodes and frequently appearing together in the first season to show their chemistry. The dialogue was written exactly the same way for both characters so that scripts could be given to either actor, and they had all the same traits right down to the $1,000 bill pinned inside their jackets.

Here’s the thing though – there’s a tangible difference between the James Garner and Jack Kelly episodes. I went into it with an open mind, but I inevitably zone out about half way through the episodes about Bart. 

Garner as Bret is pure gold. They called the series ‘dramatic with comedic overtones’, and Garner brings that comedy through his delivery. Sometimes I find myself giggling over nothing more than the look on his face. 

Bret Maverick is one of TV’s first anti-heroes. He’s not the fastest draw, nor is he the strongest in a fight (check out his hilarious rope-a-dope technique in Episode 9, ‘Stampede’). He’s a bluffing, jail-breaking drifter. But to quote Jodie Foster in Maverick (the movie), Garner is “just so irritating and likeable.” 

Garner isn’t exactly the rugged cowboy type you’d expect for a great Western lead, but a successful poker player would be well-dressed and sport a clean shave so it works. But where that touch of class simply dresses up Garner’s Oklahoma-born swagger, it keeps Kelly from properly evoking his role. 

He’s a good actor, don’t get me wrong. But his episodes don’t feel WESTERN. He can be racing along in a stagecoach through the sagebrush and it still somehow feels like an old-timey murder mystery. His voice and mannerisms and whole polished vibe feel out of place, and it’s not helped at all by the female co-stars.

Plenty of famous ‘50s actors guest star in Maverick’s first season. The leading women’s costumes are gorgeous. But as was typical of ‘50s Western movies, they sport extremely modern hair and makeup so you don’t really get transported to another time.

The men’s styling can be a bit distracting at times, too; you get a lot ‘30s pencil moustaches and suspiciously clean clothes that have obviously never seen the trail. But you can’t expect Deadwoods level of gritty, disgusting realism, because they just didn’t make ‘em like that in the ‘50s.

illustration of a fancy moustache

With that said, season 1 of Maverick is outstanding entertainment and I’m still IN LOVE with it. 

My favourite episode is Episode 9 ‘Stampede’. Dandy Jim Buckley (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) is a great character who complements Bret perfectly, being as sneaky and charming as he is. Madame Pompey (Joan Shawlee) is the best female acting I’ve seen in the series so far – she was boisterously enthusiastic, which was a welcome change of pace from the somber, reserved women of other episodes.

I won’t buy seasons 4-5, after Garner left the show, but I can’t f*cking wait to get on season 2 – Adam West makes his first appearance as a minor character! BATMAN IS IN A WESTERN! Don’t tell me Adam West isn’t Batman. You’re wrong, and I’m right. And Maverick is a great Western TV show that stands the test of time. The end. 

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