"The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick" - Maverick S02E01 Retro Review

And so we reach the second season of Maverick on MeTV.

James Garner, Maverick

I've reviewed a few episodes of the first season. And while you don't hear of it that often these days, the creative team behind Maverick had teething problems in its first season. Created and produced by Roy Huggins, the show was torn by contract issues as star, James Garner , didn't want to do a full season of episodes as Bret Maverick. So they brought in Jack Kelly to play Bret's brother Bart for half of the episodes. A couple of times they met, or Bart narrated a Bret episode. But Maverick was almost two shows: a Bret Maverick show and a Bart Maverick show.

Why was it two shows? Because Garner was better at comedy than Kelly, or so they claimed. So Bret got the more light-hearted episodes, while Bart appeared in the more Western/serious episodes.

Another reason for the confusion was that Maverick premiered in 1957. And American TV shows were undergoing a renaissance at the time. Programs were originally considered little more than Saturday movie serial fare aimed primarily at children. There were some "serious" Westerns, but the "regular" TV Western was more of a non-serialized bunch of stories with cowboys chasing bad guys and shooting at Indians. There were a few exceptions, sure, like Death Valley Days, although that was an anthology series.

Steve McQueen, Wanted: Dead or Alive

But around 1957 or so, Westerns took a more serious turn. TV was moving into its own, away from its radio and movie roots. It also moved from a less anthology-based format to ongoing. There were shows like Have Gun, Will Travel (1957, and itself based on a radio show), Trackdown (1957), Lawman (1958), and Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958). "Acting" was big, which is why we got slouching cigarette-smoking cowpokes portrayed by Robert Culp and Steve McQueen. Rawhide in 1958 gave us Clint Eastwood at the start of his career, and Gunsmoke (another started-on-radio show) had already come out in 1955.

So, the mid- to late-50s saw a lot of playing around with the format. Paladin on Have Gun was as likely to use his wits and his strategy sense as fists and a gun. He was still an expert shot and a fastest-gun-in-the-West type, but he was more sensitive, refined, and... balanced, for lack of a better word. Gone were the days when cowboys would leap on horses and ride off into the sunset. There was still a lot of that around, because it was basic to the genre. Even in the 60s, James West was a Western cowboy although they made him a Secret Service agent and filmed it in color.

Part of it was TV in general. Creative teams sprinkled their action-adventure with social commentary. You couldn't throw a rock without hitting an episode of one of the shows mentioned, or one of many other Westerns at the time, talking about the plight of Chinese workers and former African-American slaves in the 1860s. And of course, the heroes were all sensitive to the plight of majorities. Paladin could speak Spanish and Chinese, and knew martial arts. Hoby Gilman on Trackdown would be the only one standing up for a Chinese immigrant in a town full of bigots.

And with drama comes comedy. And that brings us back to Maverick. The first season alternated between serious Westerns and lighter comedies. As noted, Bart featured in the more serious episodes, but even Bret got into the act occasionally. Bret often claimed he was a lousy shot, but he outdrew practically everyone he went up against. By the beginning of the second season, Huggins decided to embrace comedy. In subsequent episodes Huggins did parodies of other Western TV shows. Starting in the second season, Huggins went for the comedy gold, and that brings us to "The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick".

James Garner, Maverick S02E01

The episode starts like a pretty standard Western. A man robs a Wells Fargo office and leaves the town of Hallelujah, New Mexico, with a posse on his trail. He rides into another town, spots Bret, switches hats and guns with him, and puts some of the stolen money in Bret's wallet. The posse rides into town and the next morning, and Bret wakes up to find himself surrounded by men with guns.

The trial is over in a minute of screen time. We see the hat, gun, and money entered into evidence, the three men who saw the robber ride out of town testify that Bret was the crook, and cuts to Garner's worried face. Unlike "Rope of Cards", which I already reviewed, the trial isn't the point here, the story is about the aftermath.

Then we get deadpan Huggins humor. For some reason, the townspeople really, really want Bret to tell them where the stolen $40,000 is. It's never clear why, except with Sheriff Chick Tucker (50s and 60s HITG Ray Teal), who is a greedy jerk. Bret isn't interested in cooperating with the people that are going to execute him. He eventually gets tired of no one believing him and hints that he knows where the money is and he's guilty.

Ray Teal, Maverick S02E01

Sheriff Chick dreams up an elaborate scheme where he and the town coroner (Jay Novello) will fake Bret's hanging, take Bret out to the cemetery in a coffin, and have Bret take them to the money. That part of the plan goes off without a hitch. When the coroner rides off to file the paperwork, Bret reverse-psychologies Chick into betraying the coroner ("That was real smart of you how you got the coroner to leave...") and getting onto a horse behind him so they can double-ride to the loot. Bret knocks Chick off the horse and rides off.

Chick and the increasingly nervous coroner can't admit that Bret escaped without demonstrating they were in on the scheme to fake his death. And this is where you get more of the humor. We get the repeating gag, which was (and still is) hot stuff on TV. The mayor keeps saying that there's a little good in everyone. The coroner keeps saying, "What will happen to us?" And we keep getting scenes with Chick playing cards with one of the witnesses when the coroner comes in and announces a new plot development.

The first development is that Bret's "widow", Molly (Whitney Blake), rides into town and wants to see her husband's body. She eventually says that Bret was actually famed robber Cliff Sharp. The townspeople are in a dither and figure that executing Sharp will put Hallelujah on the map. They quickly alter the tombstone to say "Cliff Sharp" above "Bret Maverick".

James Garner, Maverick S02E01

The next development is that Bret rides into Hallelujah. He's wearing a fake mustache and claims to be Bret's brother looking to clear Bret's name. The three witnesses look ashamed at mistakenly identifying Bret, since nu-Bret "proves" that a lot of people look like Bret. The townspeople then tell nu-Bret that Bret's widow was there. Bret is surprised to learn that he has a widow, and the helpful townspeople give him directions. Meanwhile Chick and the coroner look nervous because they're worried someone will want to dig up Bret's coffin and people will find out out that Bret isn't buried in it and they'll be implicated.

Bret rides off after Molly and when he finds her, soon ends up wooing her. This is the schmaltzy and somewhat unbelievable part of the episode, since Molly falls for Bret in about thirty seconds of screen time. She does gaslight that Bret doesn't look like the kind of man that would wear a mustache, and Bret's mustache all-but-disappears after they kiss.

Molly soon decides to dump her husband and go off with Bret. Bret insists on telling the husband, and they ride out to his farm. It turns out that the husband is the aforementioned Sharp, and he sent Molly to Hallelujah to confirm that Bret was executed for Sharp's crime. There's a gunfight and Bret advises Molly to stay out of it. She does, because she's in wuv with Bret. Bret kills Sharp, demonstrating his superior aim despite claiming he's a lousy shot.

James Garner, Maverick S02E01

At the end, Bret returns to Hallelujah, reveals that he's still alive, and hands in the stolen money that Molly led him to after her husband's death. Chick and the coroner end up in a jail cell, and the mayor pays Bret the $5,000 reward money for the recovery of the $40,000. A 12.5% reward sounds pretty high, but whatever. Molly ends up going on trial, although the mayor isn't sure what she's done that's a crime. As he leaves, Bret echoes the mayor's words about there being a little bit of good in everyone. And the coroner wonders what's going to happen to them.

The first season of Maverick dabbled in comedy, but "The Day They Hanged" almost fully embraces it. We're never concerned that Bret is going to die, and he's clearly smarter than Chick. The other townspeople are all gullible dopes with just enough greediness and stupidity that they're funny rather than serious threats. Novello as the nervous-nelly coroner is the funniest part. However, Teal has a fun time with his "aye aye nudge nudge say no more" attitude to Bret about how they both know he's guilty so Bret might as well come clean about the money so he can give it to his new best bud Chick and go to his grave with a clean conscience.

The only non-funny part is when Bret goes after Molly. The romance is unbelievable because it's so rushed, and the subsequent shootout appears to be thrown in just to make Maverick suitably Western-y. I'm not sure if Huggins & Co. are trying to parody Westerns by tossing in a Western-style denouement, or if they feel they're still obliged to do a "real" Western. The ending rescues the episode by bringing up almost all of the running gags and tossing Chick and the coroner in jail.

James Garner, Ray Teal, Maverick S02E01

Garner's wry approach throughout the first part of the episode contributes to the comedy. Bret is clearly in control of the situation even though he's been sentenced to hang. Like they say, "you can't con an innocent man", and Sheriff Chick clearly isn't innocent. Bret plays his greediness like a fiddle, suckering him into coming up with the whole fake-execution scheme so that Bret can free himself. Then when Molly arrives, Whitney Blake turns on the fake tears and the mayor is all apologetic about having to kill her "husband". At first, you wonder if Bret sent Molly in for some reason. The part after he finds out she's involved, and romances her into helping him, is the weakest part of the episode, but it's over relatively quickly.

If you're heard that Maverick is a comedy/parody, you were probably surprised by the first season if that's where you started watching on DVD or a retro channel like MeTV. By the second season, Huggins and Garner had course-corrected and the comedy that popped up occasionally in the first season bloomed in the second. So if you want to see "real" Maverick, start with the second season.

But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?

Written by Gislef on Sep 8, 2019

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