By 1965, the Cold War-fueled U.S. spy craze reached its zenith. Pop culture references had been booming, with Thunderball, the novelty song “Secret Agent Man,” and TV’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and Honey West. At the time, The Wild Wild West seemed a high-concept cross-promotional hybrid of a genre reaching its creative limits. Yet the recent release of its first season on DVD reveals the show’s deft handling of its all-over-the-place storylines, embracing Westerns, science fiction, horror, light fantasy, and camp comedy. What resulted were diverse, unpredictable episodes contained within a predictable serial framework.
The series followed the era’s spoofing of mass culture, evident in the sly grin of Connery’s 007, the “POW!” inserts of Batman, the satire of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and the cheekiness of A Hard Day’s Night. James West (Robert Conrad) is very obviously modeled as an American Bond: his gadgets (exploding pool balls, sliding sleeve gun) and womanizing are couched in humor from the first episodes. The show reveled in its outrageousness and invited us to do the same.
West takes place in a peculiarly specific time period, post-Civil War. As President Ulysses S. Grant (James Gregory) says in the first episode, “This nation’s in a pot of trouble: inflation eating the South alive, Washington crawling with carpetbaggers, jackals just gathering for the kill.” It’s the job of Secret Service Agent West and partner Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin) to keep this still-fractured country together, which means foiling the plans of bitter war veterans, latter day John Browns, Chinese opium dealers, and Mexican secessionists.
As this list of villains may suggest, the show frequently straddles a mighty precarious line between Batman-style cartoonishness and questionable caricature. One episode in particular, “The Night the Dragon Screamed,” has West saving Princess Ching Ling (Pilar Seurat) while Artemis disguises himself as a “coolie,” speaking made-up gibberish that somehow passes for Mandarin. The women are the blankest of slates, willing to betray their villainous master and fall into West’s arms without the slightest hesitation or evidence of charm on West’s part. This quickly becomes the most tired plot point of each episode. Suzanne Pleshette, in the pilot, is one of the few actresses to provide a spark that at least suggests why such a superficial relationship may develop.
In its lazy reliance on stereotypes, the show is a drag. However, one of its most successful aspects lay in blowing these stock characters up to gonzo proportions. West’s arch-nemesis Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), “that brilliant twisted little man,” would seem a likely repository for some the show’s worst stereotypical dime novel tendencies. But the writing—and especially Dunn’s Willy Wonka-tinged portrayal of the Mexican dwarf bent on taking over California to create a children’s paradise (a master plan gradually superseded by his desire to kill West)—results in an endlessly charismatic villain who is nothing other than West’s equal. (Although there are a few cheap sight gags at Dunn’s expense, where he escapes through a doggy door or is pulled around on a sled.)
Loveless is sadistic and persnickety, bullying his assistant Voltaire (Richard Kiel, who would later play Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker), but his schemes often involve a touching compassion towards the put-upon (children, ducks) and he sings lovely harmony with his harpsichord-playing muse Annette (Phoebe Dorin, with whom Dunn had a cabaret act). A great running joke has him realizing 20th century developments like radio and Cubism long before anyone else can even begin to grasp such concepts. John Kneubuhl, the writer who created Loveless while “embalmed” on scotch, describes the character’s contradictions in an included audio interview: “[he’s] an existential figure of colossal evil…and he’s silly.”
If there’s any fault with the character, it’s that Dunn makes the hero look dull by comparison. Conrad plays West with a shoot-first, straight-from-the-gut American man’s man stoicism. This is mostly a good thing; it plays off Artemis’ sarcasm and keeps the wackiness grounded in a “serious” character. But when the action focuses solely on West’s not very brilliant detective work, the pace slows considerably. This usually occurs in the third act, after the villain has revealed himself before West uses his gadgets and gymnast’s physique to pummel him acrobatically.
The first half of each episode displays the most ingenuity, primarily dictated by the villain and the generic conventions attributed to them. “The Night of the Casual Killer” is structured as a straightforward Western, where a renegade Washingtonian needs to be ferreted out of his mountain compound. One of the Dr. Loveless episodes, “The Night of the Murderous Spring,” has the doctor using hallucinogens on West, and is reminiscent of a paranoid thriller. A darker episode (“The Night of the Steel Assassin”) has an aging soldier (John Dehner) from the Mexican-American War, who has reconstituted his wounded body out of metal, seeking revenge against his former officers, one of whom was President Grant. The story initially looks like a Universal monster movie, complete with a dark mansion on a hill.
Such episodes show that a key part of the The Wild Wild West‘s success was creator Michael Garrison’s conception of a television series as an amorphous object. Constructed on a base of likeable characters, its tenor changed from episode to episode, as directors and writers interpreted the world as they wish. As brilliant as this idea could be, former CBS executive Ethel Winant notes the problem posed by West‘s seeming lack of definition.
It was hard because nobody quite knew what the show was meant to be. Was it a spoof? Well, James Bond was a spoof. Was it a Western? No, it wasn’t a Western, but it was in the west. It was bigger than life, with big villains. It was hard because it was a bastard form.
In good ways (fantastic conceptions) and bad (wooden dialogue, hackneyed conventions), West is like a comic book, complete with paneled freeze frames at the cliff-hanging commercial breaks. Yet Kneubuhl describes the importance of its “adult” silliness alongside the “comic book thing.” And so, in addition to fistfights and gadget-stacked steam engines, we get a giant named Voltaire who wants to act like a kid and a mad scientist whose weakness is compliments on his college thesis work. The identifiable shortcomings of the show’s larger than life characters mock our own pretensions for greatness.