Maverick: The Complete First Season, Warner Home Video, 22 1/2 hours on seven discs, 2012, $39.98
If you’re a fan of classic television, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the longstanding and mind-boggling unavailability of Maverick (no, not the Mel Gibson 1994 Western comedy movie) on DVD. But Warner Bros. has finally given the relentlessly witty and graceful frontier gambler a seat at the (poker) table, releasing the entire 27-episode first season.
Created by Roy Huggins, and running from 1957–62, Maverick was the smartest, funniest and, arguably, greatest Western of this golden age in TV Westerns. In contrast to the unwavering, by-the-book heroes that filled the small screen at the time (the likes of Marshall Dillon, Ben Cartwright, Marshal Dan Troop, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Lucas McCain), Maverick was a hero who lived by a distinct but not necessarily distinguished ethical code. Passed down to him by his “Pappy,” this code emphasized survival and the pursuit of money above such attributes as courage and honor. As Bret Maverick (James Garner) remembers it in “Day of Reckoning,” before sending Bret and brother Bart (Jack Kelly) off to the Civil War, their Pappy told them, “If either one of you comes back with a medal, I’ll beat you to death.”
The Maverick code itself was realized through the sharp writing and exceptional performances. Garner is flawless as the wandering gambler Bret, nailing every punch line and clever smirk while seamlessly transitioning into heavier dramatic scenes. The series would not have consummated the perfect balance between comedy and drama if not for Garner, who subsequently, and deservedly so, shot to stardom. But Kelly, who joined the series as brother Bart in episode seven (enabling the studio to produce multiple episodes at once, alternating between Bret and Bart) shines on his own, though he never could quite match Garner’s deadpan humor. Credit is also due to Huggins and the many, many writers he employed to make a standout series on such a small budget (Warner Bros. used footage from old B-movies for some of the larger action scenes), and one that has withstood time so well. Gene Levitt, Russell Hughes and Douglass Heyes were among the team of writers, who adapted many of the stories from turned-down B-movie scripts and dime magazine tales.
Maverick derived its hour-long stories from a variety of genres, and the first season embodies this range, perhaps even more so than later seasons, when the series became more comfortable and predictable. First-season adventures range anywhere from courtroom drama (“Rope of Cards,” which feels like the murder trial in 12 Angry Men) to mystery (“Black Fire,” which feels like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) to adventure (“Plunder of Paradise,” which has a touch of John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre). While the show certainly has its limitations and conventions, each episode feels fresh and distinctive.
In “Stampede” Bret Maverick is joined by the lovably conniving crook Dandy Jim Buckley (a recurring character played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), after they’re robbed and stranded on an island. In “Trail West to Fury” Bret and Bart recount to Dandy Jim why they can’t return to their home state of Texas. The only thing better than one Maverick is two. They would pair up three other times in this season, including in “The Wrecker,” based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1892 novel of the same name. Along with the aforementioned “Trail West to Fury,” Gene Levitt also wrote the hilarious “Comstock Conspiracy,” which may be the prototypical episode of the season. The irresistible Southern charm of Samantha Crawford (Diane Brewster) is on tap in two Bret episodes, but she’s at her best in Bart’s “The Savage Hills.”
Among the draws of Maverick is that the series plays with our expectations. That said, early in the first season the show clearly hadn’t found its comfort zone. “Ghost Rider,” which deals with the supernatural, and “Point Blank” (one of three episodes directed by B Western legend Budd Boetticher), which draws heavily from the noir genre (complete with a complex caper and archetypal femme fatale), are two early entries that demonstrate the series was still in experimental mode. There’s seldom use of Maverick’s laid-back, tongue-in-cheek humor and an ample amount of grittiness, with “Point Blank” being the worst offender. While none of these early episodes capture the essence of Maverick (“According to Hoyle” gets the closest), they remain enjoyable to even the most diehard fan, who at the very least can appreciate the evolution of the show.
There’s a moment in “Relic of Fort Tejon” in which a young gunslinger confronts Bret in the street. The boyish hothead is egging him on, and despite the fact he’s just been robbed and shot, Maverick does not lose his temper or go for his gun. Instead, he calmly removes his hat, using it to obscure his right hand from view. When the gunslinger urges him to go for his gun, Maverick replies, “That won’t be necessary, you see I’ve already got a derringer in this hat pointed right at your heart.” After some deliberation, the gunslinger drops his gun belt on Maverick’s orders. Maverick approaches him and removes a fist from under his hat, revealing the bluff, and knocks the man out. This is not how Paladin or Marshall Dillon or any of their heroic contemporaries would’ve handled it, but it’s how Maverick became the legend of the West. One sentence of warning: While the show has been well restored on DVD, with the exception of a few noticeably grainy shots, there’s not a special feature in sight, so if you were dying for cast and crew bios and interviews, you may be disappointed.