In these days of streaming and binging and apparently the now so-called ‘cinematic TV’ age we’re in, it’s worth remembering not everything you watch has to be history-making. It’s also worth remembering many of these shows are not always that good, or fade into quickly diminishing returns. The desire for high-concept or to shock to bring viewers in doesn’t always work in a series or audience’s favour. It’s worth doing this because it might lead you to dismiss shows from previous decades that otherwise don’t pass the hipster-cool test (I dunno, it’s a thing I think) and might be considered not worthy of your time. But for those of us who use art to enhance life and sometimes briefly smooth off the sharp edges, television is like music or any other art form in that it can confront us when we need it, but it can also comfort us and provide much-needed escapism from that intensity of every day life. And that brings us to the ‘90s, a decade that is slowly being rehabilitated in line with the idea that every decade gets a 20 or 30-year resuscitation, the ‘nostalgia pendulum’. The idea of course is that what was considered as embarrassing or passé only years after being popular comes back around as those that experienced it first time and in particular grew up during that time discover grown-up life can kick you in the ass, so shit wasn’t that bad after all. It brings feelings of warmth, a connection to simpler, better, less complex and happier times, or a reminder of them. Or given some time from a show’s first broadcast, one can consider the good and bad in a wider context.
Television from the ‘90s is part of this of course, with shows like The X-Files and Twin Peaks getting revived and other series being rebooted or updated. DVDs and streaming releases of these and other shows have allowed people to revisit them with proper distance and it has shown up the quality inherent in them. But equally true for me at least is that the ‘90s did a particular brand of network show that was often arguably cheesy or dramatically circular but also just as often smart, well-written and solidly built in terms of quality. Whilst never the biggest hits as series go, some of the best examples of this are series like Forever Knight and The Pretender and these shows have their small but incredibly loyal followings to this day because of what they offer. Revisionism was in full swing too, and many of these shows tried to fit in all the requisite drama and action required but also represent the changes that were happening in the world in society and our attitudes. It was the beginning of the emotionally literate, worldly and progressive approach that today is both the parody of ‘woke’ we find ourselves mired in and a source of genuine change – the bad and the good once again.
This brings us to the 1998 television series The Magnificent Seven, an adaptation for television of the classic Yul Bryner movie (itself an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai). It’s one of the most relevant and interesting examples from the decade of the above points. Simultaneously utterly unambitious network television with precisely zero cinematic pretension and subtly well-written, politically aware western revisionism, it succeeds as both. That’s a difficult thing to do: to give audiences what they expect every week and at the same time, for those that want it, contribute to dialogues about evolving attitudes. To create a dramatic environment that can be self-sustaining, giving the opportunity for next week’s episode, but also allowing character development to comment on that structure. The basic premise is roughly the same: a small village comes under threat from outsiders and to survive they employ the services of seven men to protect them. In this version, it’s not a village in Mexico, but a new community of displaced Native Americans and former slaves eking out an existence in make-shift homes. Their desired peace is disrupted by the arrival of an insane, laudanum-addicted ex-Confederate general played by a long-haired and suitably dangerous Kurtwood Smith and his men. Smith thinks the villagers are hiding a gold-mine and gives them a week to deliver its riches to him. But the mine’s gold reserves disappeared years ago and it collapsed on itself. To save themselves the village elders hire some men from a local town to protect them when Smith and his company return. These men are introduced in the early part of the pilot. The man in black here is another Chris, but this time played by genre icon Michael Biehn. Next is wrongly-accused murder suspect on the run Vin, played by television stalwart Eric Close. Ron Perlman is part of the group, here playing Josiah, a preacher and ex-gunfighter seeking to someone comes to terms with God for his violent past. Another television stalwart, Dale Midkiff (Time Trax, anyone?) plays Buck, Chris’ loyal friend and an incorrigible ‘ladies man’. Andrew Kavovit plays J.D, a hothead in love with the western myth and the youngest member of the group. The always reliable Rick Worthy plays ex-slave and unofficial doctor of the group Nathan, and rounding out the Seven is Southern gentleman con artist Ezra played by Anthony Starke. As the pilot progresses each man’s back-story is slowly teased and every one of them gets their own moment in the series that follows to explore that history and shine as a member. Biehn gets the meatiest arc as the truth behind the murders of his wife and son comes up later in the first season, allowing him to really act as Chris goes back to some dark places.
Before all that however, the pilot is a solid, entertaining set-up for the show. In the Seven themselves it carefully establishes the series as a mid-point between the classic western approach (characters like Chris and the past histories of the men could come from any western from the first half of the century) and a more modern, progressive version of these stories. A character like local newspaper editor Mary (played by Laurie Holden) is at once part of this progressiveness (a woman doing the job of a ‘man’ out in the west) and able to step outside of it and provide commentary on both her role and the men that form the group. Mary acknowledges Chris has his use but is dismissive of him as a relic of violence no longer needed in a ‘civilising’ time. But as Mary comes to know him and the other Seven she realises they are not simply products of murder and death in the way she had imagined (in that they enjoy it) but because it has scarred each of them in one way or another. Similarly as the young man obsessed with becoming a legendary gunfighter, focussing on J.D. allows the series to explore what that means in practice and how it has left mental and physical scars on everyone involved. It allows the Seven to function as vessels of an old-school biblical ’justice’ without just celebrating guns or the act of killing and achieves a balance between presenting action-packed stories each week and establishing and investigating what makes the characters more than stock cliches. If you want to cheer along as they take down whatever rogue is causing problems for the townsfolk that week you very much can do. But if you want to enjoy the show as something richer and more complex you can do that too. As villain for the pilot Smith is excellent and contributes to this as well. On a basic level he’s insane and very much a boo-hiss bad guy (he’ll kill anyone who crosses him and likes to blow innocent people up with a cannon) but there’s enough subtlety in the writing, in how Smith’s second-in-command eventually mutinies against him and mostly in Kurtwood’s tired, wired and emotionally layered performance for audiences to get stuck into on that deeper level too. To deliver both – straightforward action and more thematically complex drama at the same time – is something network shows learned how to do very well. The series also benefits from its writing as well as a company of fine television actors and non-flashy but consistent direction. Series like The Fugitive refined this early in television history, and shows like The Magnificent Seven continued it 30-plus years later – providing entertainment, edification and dramatic richness intertwined with consistent skill. It’s a reason why this series is really still very much worth your time and your considered attention.
If that isn’t enough for you, Robert Vaughn reoccurs in the series as a circuit judge, and he should be enough reason for anyone to tune in.