All right, follow along with me on this one.
In 1986, CBS aired a TV movie that featured a very high concept. In the 1890’s, way back in the Wild West, a criminal gang just robbed a bank. The town’s sheriff – who once ran with those criminals and later turned to a life of justice – rounded up a posse and chased the bandits into an old Indian burial ground.
There’s a showdown – guns are drawn – and just then, a bolt of lightning strikes the sheriff and the four bandits – and yanks them from the 1890’s and puts them in 1986.
They’re now forced to work together, and they set up a ranch and a detective agency. Oh, and when they fight modern-day criminals, they use vintage revolvers and weaponry – which, for some reason, is more accurate than using Uzis and Glocks and whatnot.
The TV movie was a big hit, and CBS immediately greenlit a TV series based on the adventures of these time-traveling desperados.
Thus began the series Outlaws.
A few YouTube hobbyists who collected the show back when it originally ran have uploaded selected episodes online, and the pilot episode was one such upload.
My God, look at this lineup. You’ve got Rod Taylor as the sheriff, and if you know Rod Taylor’s body of work, you know he’s at least an expert in time travel. And Richard Roundtree’s in this … granted, he’s not kicking ass and cracking skulls like he was back in the days of Shaft, but it’s still Richard Roundtree. And Charles Napier’s in this too, and he’s been in a ton of genre films and TV shows. And William Lucking’s in this – about 30 years before his big role as Piney in Sons of Anarchy. And Christina Belford’s in this – I see she found time away from being Banacek’s wife to appear in a new TV drama.
And I should note that the first two or three episodes in the series drew MONSTER ratings. Like it was the number one show on CBS for that week.
And then … it just went pfft. The ratings plummeted. Dropped like a stone.
See, here’s the issue. When you have a series like this, it needs to be fun. It needs to have humor and enjoyment. But the actors played these characters with a level of seriousness reserved for episodes of The West Wing.
Take, for example, this episode, “Primer,” in which one of the bandits, young Billy Pike, reveals his inability to read or write.
Or this episode, “Hymn,” where one of the Outlaws has to protect a tele-evangelist … while at the same time dealing with modern New York City police crime action and whatnot.
Let’s put it this way. After five weeks of this, CBS suddenly developed buyer’s remorse, and yanked Outlaws off the schedule. Eventually, the final episodes were burned off during the spring, and the last episode, “Birthday,” was kind of a bottle episode – in which footage from ANOTHER failed drama, The Oregon Trail, was inserted in the program because Rod Taylor and Charles Napier starred in both shows!
So why am I bringing up this Outlaws show?
Well, way back in 1986, I purchased a VCR. And I had this idea that if I could buy lots of videotapes, I could record my favorite shows and keep them and watch them over and over again as needed. Heck, I didn’t know of the existence of DVD’s or YouTube in 1986, so I had to work with what was available.
So I recorded all twelve episodes of Outlaws – the pilot and the series – and kept them. Eventually I transferred all the episodes to a digital format, and edited out all the commercials. And after watching these clips again …
I could see what the show was TRYING to do. It was trying to be fun and it was trying to be a re-interpretive view of the Wild West.
But it didn’t work.
And there was a ton of gun violence in this series. At least two shootouts of one form or another per episode. Then you get to the climactic scene where the Outlaws simply shoot everybody – despite using vintage firearms, they NEVER missed – and despite shooting against what appeared to be armed militias, they never got hit.
In other words – there was a great television series with lots of potential here.
It just wasn’t realized.