Starring: James Garner, Ed Bruce, many others
Mood: If you want some classic charming and easygoing weeknight ’80s TV energy but with two strong manly leads and make it a Western.
My fellow James Garner fans, you’ll get a kick out of the Bret Maverick TV “series.”
I say “series” in quotation marks because the Bret Maverick DVD set is marketed as the COMPLETE SERIES – and there was only ever one season.
- Fun Fact #1: Jack Kelly, who played Bart Maverick on the original 1950s Maverick TV series, appears in the final scene of the final episode of Bret Maverick, and apparently would have been a series regular if the show had been renewed.
While calling this a complete series is technically correct, if a little shady… the single season thing plus the hefty $80 price tag led Bret Maverick to become the burr in my Western-collecting existence for three whole years. I wanted it, yet I refused to cough up the cash.
Lucky for me (and for those of you searching for a Bret Maverick review), the price came down a couple weeks ago and here we are.
The Bret Maverick show is a meeting place somewhere between the original Maverick series and the brilliant 1994 Maverick movie – with a crapload of actors and guest appearances from people who appeared with Garner in his previous shows like The Rockford Files and Nichols.
This Maverick may have settled down, but he’s got a whole lifetime of well-tested cons, plays, scams, and bamboozles that he can roll at any time on enemies. Or his friends.
Bret Maverick places our poker-loving hero (James Garner) in the town of Sweetwater, Arizona.
The first episode is actually a full TV movie called The Lazy Ace, which ALMOST makes up for the fact that this is one measly season. Maverick buys a ranch and forms a saloon partnership with ousted town sheriff Tom Guthrie (Ed Bruce).
Unlike the 1950s Maverick series, this show has a full cast of recurring weekly characters, including:
- Tom Guthrie
- Rancher Cy Whittaker (Richard Hamilton)
- A useless new sheriff
- A duplicitous banker
- The staff at the local newspaper
- A shady “Indian” named Philo Sandeen (Stuart Margolin)
- Jack the bartender (Garner’s brother Jack)
Most episodes involve a bad guy or guys or dame, coming to town to swindle or outright kill Maverick – or steal money, or land, from the townsfolk. The people of Sweetwater don’t like Maverick because of his reputation, but he’s always expected to pull off one of his tricks to save the day.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
It feels like the producers pretty much wanted to craft a Western around Garner, but with the breezy vibe of popular sitcoms like Taxi, Happy Days, and Three’s Company.
And that created the one key problem I have with it: because of its vapid sitcom format nobody truly challenges Maverick – there’s no great villain. You’re always confident that Maverick is better than the bad guys n’ gals he faces, and he is.
Although the original Maverick episodes were the same length as these new ones and also each ended with things fairly concluded, you still felt like the O.G. Maverick was being put to the test every week. The younger Bret Maverick was cocky and cavalier, but he also made a lot of mistakes.
This senior Maverick has a Rolodex of successful plays to pull every time he encounters a situation.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved getting another 18 hours of James Garner as Maverick! And they did throw some extremely creative situations at him: an author who pays six hitmen to kill Maverick so he can finish his book on Maverick’s life; a wandering magician out to steal a buried treasure from under the saloon, and a religious cult leader who buys up everyone’s land but has a weakness for gambling.
There’s a lot of clever dialogue and general fun to be had in Bret Maverick. I get what they were going for. But despite Garner preferring this version to the original, it feels a little hokey.
Although I bought this series for my longtime love of James Garner, I came away a huge fan of Ed Bruce.
- Fun Fact #2: Ed Bruce was a ‘70s country singer who did a few Westerns including TV shows, TV movies, and films. He’s also the rugged voice of the Bret Maverick theme AND the original artist behind that song The Ranch brought back: ‘Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys’.
Bruce is the one to watch in this entire season. His character seems like the straight man, but sometimes you NEED the straight man when Maverick is hellbent on a selfish flimflam. And Tom Guthrie has a mysterious past that makes him the perfect balance of brooding bad boy and the most genuinely good person on the show.
Bruce fits so naturally into the Western genre that I wish I’d discovered him much sooner.
Garner’s performance is somewhere between the cheeky poker-playing drifter of his youth, and the exasperated lawman pappy of Mel Gibson’s Bret in Maverick. He’s getting too old for this shit, but he’s still got that trademark wit that annoys everyone around him – and gets him out of scrapes.
Richard Hamilton is my favourite supporting actor among the cast, as the crusty old rancher saddled with Maverick as a roommate and constantly irritated by Bret’s behaviour. Marj Dusay is easily the standout female performance of the season, making five appearances as a shifty businesswoman named Kate, the only one who can one-up Maverick.
Unfortunately for the season, there are two characters who drag down every scene they’re in.
- ML Springer (Darleen Carr) is a combination of lazy writing and lazy acting. The character’s costumes, hair, and makeup are extremely ‘80s modern, her personality is grating – yet we’re supposed to believe she is good at interviewing people AND that Guthrie loves her. It’s a waste of the ‘working woman’ Western archetype; you can see how well that character can be done if you give Territory a read.
- Philo Sandeen (Stuart Margolin) pretends to be Indigenous, and most of the time it seems like everyone knows he’s a fake. But other times he gets away with saying and doing things that are just outright stereotyping and appropriation. In one episode he says “I’m an Indian trapped in a white man’s body,” and has a forced redemption storyline with local Natives. The character is gross and unnecessary; if Bret needed an occasional friend in low places, Sandeen could have been a deserter, a drifter, a drunk… plenty of archetypes to choose from.
With all of that said, if feels like Bret Maverick definitely could have become something if it had been renewed. I’d like to think that they’d start to get some sweet guest actors and give us some stronger bad guys. And it would have been great to see what they did with TWO Maverick brothers in Sweetwater.
I have no regrets at all about finally buying Bret Maverick, after it sat on my Amazon wishlist taunting me since 2018. Although it isn’t perfect, thanks in large part to Darleen Carr’s stupid ‘80s hair and pants that aren’t even trying to be Western, I will definitely throw it on again for a few laughs.
And for Ed Bruce!