Bret and Bart Maverick (and in later seasons, their English cousin, Beau) are well dressed gamblers who migrate from town to town always looking for a good game. Poker (5 card draw) is ...
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Set in Sweetwater, Arizona in the 1880s with solid citizen Bret owning a ranch and part of the Red Ox Saloon. Stable cast with varying stories, often centered on conflict between the ambitious sheriff and everyone else.
Bret and Bart Maverick (and in later seasons, their English cousin, Beau) are well dressed gamblers who migrate from town to town always looking for a good game. Poker (5 card draw) is their favorite but they've been known to play such odd card games as Three-toed Sloth on occasion. The show would occasionally feature both or all three Mavericks, but usually would rotate the central character from week to week. Written by
John Vogel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
My old pappy says this is a signature series of the 50's that lives up to its name. It took the producers time to figure out that gold lay not in the direction other Westerns were taking, but in an untraveled direction. In 1958, a Western with a comedic format was still a foreign concept since it was hard to build up to a gunfight with belly laughs. Of course, the matinée cowboys (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, et al.) included a side-kick for comic relief, but the lead cowboy was always the truest and the fastest on the block. Probably no movie genre stuck more closely to formula than the American Western. That is, until Maverick. Nonetheless, the signature tongue-in-cheek took time to evolve; like a strong friendship, it didn't suddenly spring forth with the first installment.
By my reckoning, the first 30 or so entries had parts that looked like any other Western of the day, ie. gunplay, fist-fights, etc, and it wasn't until episode # 37 "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" that we got 60 minutes of pure Maverick. Here it was a battle of wits from beginning to end with sly running gags, colorful characters, and nary a drop of blood in sight. It's at this point that the series discovered itself, and likely the audience discovered a very different kind of Western.
The biggest problem the series had was keeping lead actor James Garner from jumping ship into the better-paying world of movies. Likely, it was Garner's exceptional comedic skills that moved the series in a humorous direction in the first place. He had such an obvious flair that I think the format came to fit him rather than vice-versa. But TV had a reputation of "using up" actors before casting them aside. So, it's understandable that Garner would use his new leverage to negotiate into the more stable environment of film. But that created cast problems for the producers. The series was pretty much identified with Garner's Bret character. Jack Kelly was an able second banana, but lacked the skills to carry the show. Thus the lead casting bounced around some, depending on Garner's availability. As a result, we came to find that the Maverick family has a number of off-shoots, including Beau (a smooth Roger Moore) and Brent (a rather inept Robert Colbert).
Often overlooked is how well the series tapped into a neglected aspect of Americana. During the Cold War Americans were told the Soviets had a popular advantage, because their national game was chess, a highly cerebral contest of move and counter-move that requires great concentration and sometimes hours to complete. Aside from prodigy Bobby Fischer, the US produced few chess players of note. No, our national game is not the prestigious pursuit of chess, but a case can be made for America's love for good old plain-faced poker. Thousands of neighborhoods enjoy a low-stakes version, as well as the high-stakes casino variety. Surprisingly poker turns up rarely on the screen, perhaps because it's a game of chance associated with gambling, an activity condemned by many. Now chance does play a role in poker, otherwise known as "the luck of the draw". But knowing how to play your cards requires real skill, and just as importantly, being able to "read" your opponent.
Note in Maverick how many pearls of wisdom are drawn not only from dear old Pappy, but from how to play a good hand of poker. I think people enjoyed hearing pearls like "never draw to an inside straight, except...", especially when combined with the usual Maverick dose of wry good humor. So how surprising is it that millions of amateur players tuned in weekly to see their game legitimized on the screen and maybe pick up a few pointers at the same time.
It wasn't all aces, of course, especially in regard to production values. After all, the show was, like most of the day, modestly budgeted. Going into the wide open spaces usually meant crossing the tree line from the Warner Bros. sound stages to the backlot and moving around some of the many fake boulders. But that was okay since the show's appeal wasn't authenticity or scenery. What wasn't okay, in my book at least, was the sloppy matching of stock shots with the backlot footage. Thus, we'd get a shot of someone riding across backlot trees and foliage and the next progression shot of him riding across the barren red rock country of Arizona! Maybe that happens on Mars, but not on planet Earth. I could understand this lack of continuity from an independent production, but not from a big-time studio like Warner Bros.
The show never relied on big-name stars or celebrities to boost its appeal, unlike, say, the popular Wagon Train or Bonanza. That meant, for one, that the scripts had to be unusually good. The writers could not rely on stock situations to drive the plot once the format shifted from melodrama to sly tongue-in-cheek. But now, the screenplays had to come up with contests where the Maverick boys could outwit opponents and generate some laughs at the same time. Scriptwriters didn't always succeed, but when they did, the result was unlike anything else at the time. In fact, if memory serves, ABC even scheduled the show opposite CBS's perennial Sunday evening blockbuster, The Ed Sullivan Show. Pretty fast company for an hour that started off as just another Western.
All in all, however, I think the best measure is that over the years, "Maverick" managed to dig not only a small niche into popular consciousness, but also into the traditional fund of American folklore. Even people who've never seen the show think "sly poker player" when they hear the name. I guess the producers knew how to play the game, after all.
(See my review of "A Fellow's Brother", episode 11, season 3, for discussion of the series' slyly subversive content.)
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