Starring: Robert Conrad, Ross Martin
Mood: If your idea of a good time is James Bond but make it a Western.
Let’s get this out of the way: if you’re here for the Will Smith Wild Wild West, you’re in the wrong place. That abomination will forever live in my Hated It section. We’re here to talk about the first season of the black-and-white 1960s TV series The Wild Wild West!
This show came out at a time when Westerns were losing their grip on household televisions. After WWII, people got majorly into spy stuff. They wanted to watch shows about smooth-talking Americans thwarting international villains and saving the world (or at least America and a hot woman).
Rather than simply make a show about spies, The Wild Wild West creator Michael Garrison developed what he called “James Bond on horseback” – a series that weaves the Victorian time and place of the Old West with a dizzying amount of futuristic spy gadgetry, topped with thrills, murder mysteries, and classic horror.
- If you’re thinking, “hmm, that sounds an awful lot like steampunk,” you’re absolutely correct. The first steampunk fiction came out in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and this show is widely considered a massive influence on the genre.
The Wild Wild West isn’t the series to watch if you’re craving a good ol’ classic Western. There’s so much focus on the villains and espionage and pretty ladies that you’ll often forget there’s even a Wild West outside. But if you like all that stuff AND Westerns, this may be exactly the TV viewing you need in your life.
The Wild Wild West season one has 28 episodes, each an hour long. They can be watched in any order you want because they’re like little movies – and also because many of the episodes were broadcast out of order for various reasons. They follow a comfortable, enjoyable format that won’t force you to stay up way past your bedtime just to resolve a cliffhanger.
- Jim West (Robert Conrad) is a bold Secret Service agent who’s particularly handy in fist fights, shootouts, and with the ladies
- Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) is a smart Secret Service agent who’s particularly handy with creating gadgets and rocking disguises
- Their continuing mission is to protect President Ulysses S. Grant, but he doesn’t take up too much of their time so they can be hired to chase any dastardly villain
- The villains can be male or female but they’re always dastardly – and many of them have fancy gadgets that require Artie to invent a bigger, badder gadget
- Every episode ends with Jim smooching a woman, but you don’t have to bother with names because they’re never seen again
There’s a ton of action, Robert Conrad frequently loses his shirt (and sometimes his pants split, too), you SERIOUSLY need to check out the list of gadgets, and some of the villains are absolutely excellent TV.
The only downsides are that it’s the ‘60s and there are a LOT of white people playing non-white characters, and of course that there’s not quite enough Wild West to truly satisfy that Western craving.
Jim and Artie travel a lot by train, so you do see Western countryside out the windows. They sometimes wear cowboy or gunslinger apparel. And when they go to towns you get your standard Old West town sets, with scenes inside saloons or hotels. But overall, it leans more into the spies and Sci-Fi.
Of the two leads, Ross Martin steals the show. All of the shows. Every time there’s a show, it’s the Ross Martin show and I want front row seats.
Apparently Martin was drawn to Artie because the character is always called upon to don a disguise. Martin got to wear over 100 disguises (peep this hilarious ‘best of’ video) and use countless fake accents throughout the series, showing off a massive range of abilities. It’s basically an actor’s dream come true.
The first time I realized I was a huge fan of Artie was season one, episode five: Night of the Casual Killer. Artie pretends to be a super drunk actor performing Hamlet and it’s just brilliant comedy.
It takes a special talent to make the tech geek outshine the charming hero whose last name is literally West in a show called The Wild Wild West. Robert Conrad is good, don’t get me wrong, but he feels run-of-the-mill next to Martin.
As mentioned, there’s some great TV villainy in season one:
- Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless (Michael Dunn) delivers his pint-sized evil genius in four episodes, and trust that his performance is WAY F*CKING BETTER than what they did with the character in the movie
- Voltaire (Richard Kiel) is Loveless’ henchman, whom you’ll recognize as the iconic Jaws from the original 007 franchise
- Colonel “Iron Man” Torres (John Dehner) is so thoroughly committed to his vengeful cyborg that you can instantly feel Dehner’s theatrical experience
- Professor Okrney Cadwallader (Burgess Meredith) is everything you want in an insane geologist-turned-extortionist
There are TONS of women in this series. So many women. Gorgeous women – all of whom were supposedly 5’6 or under because Conrad was 5’8 and wore 3” lifts. But even the ladies who manage to squeeze more from their femme fatale roles are forgettable as soon as the next episode starts, which was probably on purpose.
The Wild Wild West is pretty darn good weeknight TV. After you’ve seen one episode you can kind of relax and zone out, and when you look up you can jump right back into things and figure out what’s happening.
I do wish the episodes were shorter, because in case it wasn’t obvious from that previous statement, I found it hard to stay focused. Something about the cheeky dialogue and neatly resolved storylines feels better suited for 25-minute episodes, like Batman and Get Smart.
But clearly it worked for ‘60s audiences, because The Wild Wild West enjoyed high ratings and was immensely popular throughout its run. In fact, the only reason it was canceled was due to increasing public outcry over violence on TV.
If I’m being honest, I might not keep going with the series. Even with the lure of Ross Martin, that’s 104 hours during which I can’t watch other Westerns, and by the time I finished I’d be old and my reviews would be being written by AI.