This was originally going to be about several TV shows I like, but I found myself unable to shut up about Laramie for five seconds until that section grew so bloated and gargantuan it needed to be contained in its own blog post. And thus, here we are.
What I was doing before I wrote this massive thing was trying to narrow down my top three favorite western TV shows. That in itself was hard enough. Often the Big Three of Western Television will involve Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and The Rifleman in varying combinations, but while those are some of the most well-known they hardly scratch the surface of this vast and magnificent genre. Rawhide, The Virginian, Wanted: Dead Or Alive, Cimarron City, The Restless Gun, The Rebel, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Tales of Wells Fargo, Death Valley Days, The Californians, Tombstone Territory, Maverick, Lawman, Trackdown, Cheyenne, The Tall Man, Whispering Smith, and Have Gun—Will Travel. . .and there are still more. How’s a girl supposed to pick from all those?
The answer was pretty easy after the initial distress, because Laramie was coming on GRIT and I watched it with lunch and remembered how much I absolutely loved it, as if I’d somehow forgotten in the first place. It may have helped that it was a color episode and Jess was decked out in the Bad Blue Shirt, but I’m no expert. The moment those credits rolled, my mind was made up. Sorry, Rawhide, we’re still friends, but Laramie was my first love.
For some background, Laramie started in 1959, the same year as the great Bonanza itself, as a show about a man running his late father’s ranch (doubling it as a stagecoach relay station to make ends meet) while also raising his younger brother, with whom he shares no resemblance whatsoever. A Texan drifter shows up, joins the fun, and the magic is born. The stories were good (even if that one unabashedly ripped off The Maltese Falcon, and that other one had suspicious Psycho vibes complete with the Bates house and Mort Mills) and on the occasions they weren’t, the characters were there to pull you through. Bonanza may have had Michael Landon as Little Joe, but Laramie had Robert Fuller as Jess Harper (though, ironically, he almost played Little Joe). The reasons I love it are
not remotely simple and as follows:
—Robert Fuller (AKA Leonard Leroy Lee)—
I am a shameless Robert Fuller fan. I am the kind of fan that is irredeemably hooked on all of his Holy Trinity of TV: Laramie, Wagon Train, and Emergency!, the kind of fan who only really started watching Wagon Train when Season 7 hit and knows exactly what number episodes his two guest star roles were previously. The kind of fan who endures musicals just to find him in the dance line-up. The kind of fan who watches Waterpik commercials because he was in them even though I will never need a Waterpik nor buy one. (Remember, you’re not taking a shower, you’re taking a bath.) The kind of fan who struggled through an episode of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin because he had a five-minute role in it. I need psychiatric help, is what I’m saying. You get it.
Fuller started out as a stuntman and dance extra, so when Laramie rolled around you got to watch Jess Harper do unreasonably athletic things and could rest assured it was actually Jess Harper the whole time. Plus, when you take all that talent and charm and stick it behind one of the handsomest faces ever to grace the world and coat it all in a perpetual layer of dust, cowhide, and denim, you really can’t lose. (And the voice. We don’t even have to mention the voice.) Should I stop now? I think I should stop now.
—The “Pards” Concept—
Jess and Slim are best friends, so much so that it sneaks across into brotherhood without clearly crossing the line. Theirs is a slightly rocky friendship that assures both members they have each other’s back no matter what, through thick and thin and great big messes and the occasional toothache. This is a good thing, because they both have a penchant for getting shot, kidnapped, beaten up and left in alleyways, deputized, bushwhacked, arrested, sucked into the machinations of shady characters from the past, yielding to their own petty tempers, and falling prey to beautiful ill-willed women—so much so that by the time you hit Season 3 you realize it’s a downright miracle either of them lasted so long on their own before the show started (and if you don’t believe me, here’s a seven minute music video dedicated to all the pain Jess alone has endured over the years). The designation for this symbiotic masterpiece is simply “pardners”, or the preferred “pard”.
A pard is someone who looks out for you, who goes out and finds you when you’ve had the snot beat out of you in an old warehouse, who stands by you no matter what even if your old slightly disreputable friends have shown up with wild schemes about blowing up the bank or burning down the town and you’re not really sure it’s a good idea to go along with them. The chemistry between Jess and Slim is nothing less than perfection itself; they’re both stubborn, fierce, and lean towards hot-tempered (okay, well, one doesn’t so much lean as fling himself face-first), but while Slim gets stiff-necked about following rules Jess gets stiff-necked about the fact there are so many in the first place. It’s there that their similarities end; for the most part Slim lets the law handle things. Jess. . .does not. Where Slim runs cold, Jess runs hot. Where Slim runs hot, Jess often runs hotter.
In an extension of this pardnership (if you will), they both are affectionate and fiercely protective of their other “family”—be it Slim’s kid brother Andy and crabby Jonesy in the first (and sort of second) season or the slightly sickeningly sweet Daisy and annoying brat-child Mike during the latter part of the show. (Daisy, admittedly, is more tolerable without Mike, but not by a terribly large amount.) It’s the kind of show that gives you the warm fuzzies while kicking your blood up because you know someone’s got to get the tar beat out of them eventually. This is the only reason I tolerate having Daisy and Mike around—simply because I enjoy the fondness and familial respect that Slim and Jess show them both.
Now that I’ve gushed about the actor, let’s gush about the character. To sum up Jess, he can be an idiot. Not always, I mean, but he’s very inclined to let his passion lead the way instead of his common sense. He’s a hothead who throws himself headfirst, fists flying, into any situation with absolutely no idea what’s going on, driven by the conviction that obviously somebody’s in trouble and they need help that he’s capable of giving and perfectly willing to. Even if he does on occasion get mixed up by tipping the scales and making the winning side the wrong side (looking at you, Cully Brown) he’s maddeningly self-sacrificing and good-hearted, so we forgive him because his intentions are so unequivocally upstanding. Plus, he gets beat up so much in the pursuit of justice, you kind of start feeling sorry for him after a while.
Quick-tempered and unreasonably fast with a gun, he looks for fights where fights should be, and if a fight should be there and isn’t, he makes one, even if this means he finds himself alone on the wrong end of a fistfight for his trouble. He’s impulsive and messes up almost as often as he wakes up half-naked in strange beds, but owns up to it every time and is better for the experience. His loyalty runs so deep it often drags him magnificent hair-first into trouble, as ties to old, bizarre, and homicidal friends compel him to help them out even at his own expense. (But when that expense spreads to Slim or the others, he draws the line, and LQ Jones gets beaten up yet again.)
He’s a sucker for lost causes and underdogs, determined to give his all for justice and basic decency simply because it’s the right thing to do. Often we’re treated to the delicate balance that is Jess Logic, how his sense of duty and moral compass make the right thing unavoidable, because it’s the right thing—until it’s not the right thing, but old debts keep dragging him down and the right thing to do is repay them, even if it means doing the wrong thing, so everything turns out right. It’s complicated. And he’s Robert Fuller.
Laramie provides cliches and tropes and plot devices, and every minute of it is fabulous. It comes from the timeless golden era where TV shows needed no swearing or explicit scenes in an attempt to provoke an edgy, bored audience into watching and taught valuable lessons about life itself. Right was right and wrong was wrong, and if it was the other way around there was no excuse for it and Jess Harper was going to beat somebody up to fix it. And after Jess screwed it up through some athletic feat of hotheadedness Slim came in to pick up the bloody mess that was left and tie up the loose ends, usually while the sheriff stood around and looked vaguely confused and law-abiding. Occasionally something extremely, jarringly random would occur such as Japanese people showing up in Season 3, but at least in the show’s four year run there were no leprechauns or unfortunate individuals who were convinced they were King Arthur. (Looking at you, Bonanza. Cough, cough.)
Laramie wasn’t played strictly for laughs; they incorporated humor into the show, with Jess smashing into an abruptly stopped Slim or being dunked into the horse trough or terrorizing Jonesy with Andy’s assistance. That way, even if the plot stunk (which was rare) you had at least those bright little moments to fondly recall after you finished the episode and wondered, “What did I just watch?” Unlike the McCain ranch in North Fork, there was actually a legitimate reason for everybody and his Uncle Riley to pass by the Sherman place on the way in from wherever—it was a ranch and relay station, made for stagecoaches to stop at to and from Laramie itself. The McCain spread was just where Chuck Connors lived, I guess, and somehow this drew guest stars of every station and walk of life to drop by.
There were things to be learned from Laramie. Not things like hot-wiring cardiac patients with candlesticks and a stereo set like MacGyver would do, but actual applicable things that stuck with you once the show was done. Loyalty, knowing right from wrong, manners and common decency and fighting the good fight even if it hurt you. When things got tough, Jess and Slim, our unfailing pillars of rugged masculinity, never gave in to pressure and took the easy way out. They always buckled down and fought even harder to defend their principles and their morals, no matter what the odds. Sometimes a problem would pit them against each other, as they both had their ideas about how it should be dealt with, and we got to see just how stubborn our two boys could be. And unlike Gunsmoke, where Matt Dillon mowed down eight dozen people every episode and never got in trouble seeing as he was the marshal and all, on Laramie it meant something to kill a man. It was a last resort, and something done thoughtlessly only if you were the baddest of the bad. And while they did it, they didn’t enjoy it. (Okay, well, Jess might have a time or two, but they totally deserved it and I would have had a blast shooting them up too.)
I could ramble on, but the point has been made: Laramie is a great show with a great cast. If this hasn’t scared you off from seeing it yet, you can watch it online here and see what you think. Scroll through all the Stoney Burke (unless you’re a Jack Lord fan, I mean) and you’ll find it. Happy watching!