Budd Boetticher directed the first three episodes of the ’50s TV Western Maverick, and they set the precise tone for what Maverick would be. The half-comic/half-dramatic series was created by Roy Huggins and stars James Garner as a traveling card sharp and con man named Bret Maverick, who keeps getting himself drawn into showdowns he can’t win, having to rely on his wits—not his gun—to wriggle free. In his Westerns with Randolph Scott, Boetticher mastered a kind of lean storytelling that reduced life in the Old West to a few scraps of shared history and the looming threat of conflict. Each Maverick episode was like an even more refined version of the Boetticher/Scott dusty problem-plays, with twisty plots anchored by Garner’s roguish charisma.
But the 27 episodes on the Maverick: The Complete First Season DVD set aren’t just Boetticher-esque; they’re in sync with the depth and range of the classic ’50s Westerns of Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann, and even the great adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (whose novel The Wrecker inspired a season one episode of the same name). Granted, Maverick is much, much lighter than the “psychological Westerns” of the era. Garner does carry a certain gravitas in the lead role, but that’s only because he seems much smarter than everyone else, and vaguely exhausted by what he has to put up with from his rivals (and his allies, for that matter). Still, because Maverick travels around the West—often accompanied by his brother Bart, played by Jack Kelly—he sees more of the country than most TV Western heroes. The stories in Maverick take place in riverboats, ranches, big-city saloons, and rickety mining towns, all occupied by an eclectic cross-section of humanity: cowboys, lawyers, strongmen, prospectors, and prostitutes. As with the best movie Westerns of the time, Maverick is mostly about the little makeshift societies that dotted the West, and the men and women who figured out how to maneuver through them.
Maverick’s not perfect. Because the show was so ambitious, Huggins realized early in the first season that his staff couldn’t crank out episodes fast enough, so he hired more crew, and added Kelly to the cast, allowing him to alternate Mavericks depending on the episode. And while Kelly’s fine, he’s no Garner. The “Bart” Mavericks are just as well constructed, but they lack the kick of watching Garner think his way out of another tight corner. Whether he’s cutting up newspapers to fool hoteliers into thinking he’s carrying a wad of $1,000 bills, or he’s swaying a stubborn jury member by playing a card trick, Maverick always finds an angle—even in the flatlands of the frontier.
Key features: None—a total bust.