The Magnificent Seven Season One is a Charming Marathon
by Kristin Battestella
Gunslinger Chris Larabee (Michael Biehn), bounty hunter Vin Tanner (Eric Close), lothario Buck Wilmington (Dale Midkiff), gambler Ezra Standish (Anthony Starke), preacher Josiah Sanchez (Ron Perlman), and medic Nathan Jackson (Rick Worthy) school new kid in town J.D. Dunne (Andrew Kavovit) on the code of the West while they help Judge Travis (Robert Vaughn) and his daughter-in-law newswoman Mary (Laurie Holden) protect the town from bandits, corrupt ranchers, and all manner of outlaws...
In the winter of 1998, CBS brought back the familiar charm of The Magnificent Seven with nine episodes of good old fashioned cowboy adventure beginning with the ninety minute “Ghosts of the Confederacy.” The prejudice against Seminoles and freed slaves is immediate thanks to half breed hatred made physical with cannon fire and general Kurtwood Smith's (That 70's Show) demands for gold. The opening credits introduce us to the heroes before we see them onscreen, assuring viewers can recognize when our Seven are roused into fighting alongside the oppressed. Too many people are looking the other way, and this motley crew intend to do something about it with shootouts, cemetery standoffs, swagger, and sarcasm. Such lively lawlessness, however, isn't scene chewing laugh out loud set piece spectacles. Sardonic deadpans about greeting one with hostility versus hospitality come amid more subtle bonding over drinks, licking of wounds, and even moments of doubt. The Magnificent Seven is not high drama, but we need something to root for and big moments happen with firm western grandstanding. Seven horses march down main street at sunrise and shots are fired while capture, turncoats, and near executions have consequences. This pilot has a lot to establish, but different pairs of the team have a chance to get together and respect each other's skills. Now, on shows such as Enterprise, Robin Hood, and Merlin, there's always an obligatory out of place save a town from marauders by teaching them how to fight episode. With The Magnificent Seven, however, that's the whole story, and it would get old fast to save the day every week. Fortunately, “One Day out West” takes time at home as the new judge in town lays down the law against cattleman Brion James (Blade Runner). Local residents are reluctant to join the jury – justice isn't as important if you have to live in town once the trial ends. Wounds linger, characters question if they should stay or go, and both good and bad guys end up in the jail cell. Standoffs in the rain lead to coffins filled with rocks, legal ruses, and court presiding in the saloon as chases and heroics give the town courage. The Seven sign on for a dollar a day plus room and board to establish The Magnificent Seven's ongoing possibilities, and despite the common ranchers, homesteaders, and rowdy, this bottle episode gives the audience a chance to enjoy the charming interplay. When you have the cast, characters, and story you don't need the in your face, look look notice superficial try hard problematic last seen in the 2016 Magnificent Seven remake. Explosions, ladies in the prison wagon, and kids in the saloon set off “Safecracker” alongside sheriff turned conman Jeff Kober (China Beach), cheating at poker, and staking out the bank to plan the robbery. Kidnappings, across the border hideouts, and double crosses make for an entertaining heist. It's not all guns and glory but our boys are multifaceted scoundrels just as comfortable in the sanctuary as the saloon.
Intense black and white flashbacks and distorted gunshots through the eyes of a quiet, shy, terrified boy open “Witness” – the first slightly darker standout episode of The Magnificent Seven that should have come sooner than the fifth episode. Past unsolved crimes are revisited thanks to scary threats, dangerous horses in the street, stagecoach chases, bandits, nightmares, and family trauma. Viewers know who the well to do murderer is, but the focus here is our directly involved characters and lady-centric themes deepen the town ensemble and family dynamics. Who would have wanted a newspaper man dead? Well, a lot of people, and new details printed in the paper are used to flushed out the killer amid runaways, prairie shootouts, and confessions. Pain, memories, motherhood, and parent child conflicts divide and conquer our boys as they get to the truth, and The Magnificent Seven gets better as the season goes on in balancing serious individual stories and tall western yarns. In “The Collector” a tough old lady tells her young niece to save the last bullet for herself as rival cattle baron Tim Thomerson (Who's Harry Crumb) wants their homestead so he can sell big to the railroad. He believes in Three Gs – God, Guns, and Get the hell of my property – and today's troubles add to the talk of “Indian givers,” demeaning use of “boy,” burnings, and lynchings from a character called “Top Hat Bob.” Buying one's own deed and $300 taxes would be impossible but for a loan from The Seven, and the threatening raids and ill gotten gains are evenly paced with the awkward smitten and love lost plots. A and B stories mean the team is involved in each other developments as well as their own, topping The Magnificent Seven off with drunken diversions and dynamite that won't light. Unfortunately, The Seven don't think a Native American abduction of a white woman is as cut and dry as it seems in “Manhunt.” Her minister father and loud mouth brother incite town mobs and posses at funerals, and even some of our group suspect a savage only wants one thing from a lady. The upstanding white folk not being as righteous as they seem follows the previous episode's suggested ugly with more overt issues. The Magnificent Seven is a fun show with western plots that were common twenty years ago, yet some of the series' discourse on xenophobia and religious conflicts are unfortunately relevant again. Missionaries wanting to help make the situation worse – tribal law and punishment aren't enough for locals who want a hanging and some men are unable to accept the mistakes made. Despite jail cell rituals, escapes, and mano y mano fights, wise men on both sides try to quell the anger, grief, and bitter truths.
Despite mentions of the Union Army, General Lee, and Fort Laramie, The Magnificent Seven is unfortunately nondescript in its time and place beyond the generic West. Several episodes in a row also resort to a make the bad guys believe their quarry is dead ruse, and yeah, nobody knows how to contact The A-Team, sure. This is a family show, so while “son of a bitch” is rough and authentic, no one will dare say “whore” or “brothel.” In the late nineties, a series thought it could takes it time, so the earliest entries here are see one, seen 'em all with the ensemble charm carrying what today wouldn't be much to hold on to if viewers were watching weekly. These shows are also short – forty-eight minutes at most but often a quick forty-four minutes with credits when an extra scene and just more time overall would elevate the lighthearted into something more mature. Of course, today a show like this would kill one of The Seven or rotate the players, and although The Magnificent Seven has peril, there isn't enough cruelty to ruin the heroic escapism. Unfortunately “Working Girls” was as tired then as it is now. Perhaps one can excuse the Saturday night network lack of spice but the un-sexy bathtub humor and jokes about not charging a guy she really likes don't work amid the screams, bruised women, and abusive pimp plot. Already awkward for a family show, the jokes go from bad to worse with Ezra hoping to sell off the women as mail order brides after some charm school lessons in the church. Everyone goes along with this too, for they all think marriage and gentility are the hookers' only hope – when not resorting to stereotypical drag to save the day, of course. This entry feels like it was filmed much later in the season; filler lark when we are supposed to already know and laugh alongside our characters. When aired as the third episode, however, the tone is too off kilter. Ironically likewise hurt by its place as the season finale is “Inmate 78.” Despite modern feelings thanks to shivs, false arrests, backwater justice, numbers instead of names, and hard labor sentence in a private prison camp, this is a fine entry thanks to wanted posters, shackles, and escape attempts. The team has to pull together without their leader's heroics. References in the plot, however, reveal this entry was clearly filmed earlier in the season and it should have aired at least fourth. Rather than sending the series gunning right out of the gate, The Magnificent Seven saved all the more serious episodes for the traditional spring sweeps, leaving the easy going episodes to rally initial viewers on charm alone. But hey, the finale is the only episode where we see one of the guys shirtless. Nowadays, each of the boys would have to be buff and tussling topless by the horse trough every week. C'est la vie.
Man in black Chris Larabee is suave be it whiskey and a cigarette or unfettered in the shootout, and Michael Biehn (Aliens) is a fitting leader in the spirit of Yul Brynner and George Kennedy. Chris is cool in his simplicity but wise and sarcastic. He let's everyone have their shots at the clouds, knowing they didn't stop and reload, yet insists no one is ever shot in the back. When asked where he came from, he says the saloon. Where is he going next? The saloon. His reputation precedes him, and Larabee's backstory anchors The Magnificent Seven. Since his wife and son were killed, Chris silently endures his torment, threatening Buck for talking about it and saying nothing when people ask about his past. He objects to being called a cowboy, but sticks around even if he admits he feels out of place with the new businesses and opportunities in town. Chris chooses his battles, saying money can't buy everything, and makes his own justice when pretending to be the bad guy – such as robbing a bank and giving the money back to the locals. While in a prison camp he earns respect when defending those who can't help themselves and apologizes for being trigger happy many years ago. He's met the devil more than once but hasn't been beaten by him yet. Although he has a few lady friends, Chris clearly likes Mary's moxie. He whittles a toy horse for her son, but doesn't think he's the right person to nurture the boy. He thinks getting shot is just a scratch, too, but has no time for racists – insisting they should watch their backs if they don't thank Nathan for his help. When a prisoner has information on the Larabee murders in “Nemesis,” Chris holds the witness under in the trough until he gets the details. He doesn't trust all of the team to return to his homestead and confirm the story, but the trip only brings bittersweet, sunny flashbacks for Chris, colorful and idyllic scenes compared to his current dark facade. Evidence of co-conspirators and left handed clues aren't much to go on against slick killer Stephen McHattie (Deep Space Nine...”It's a faakkkeee!”). He's always one step ahead, and violent confrontations lead to shot in the back consequences. This superb episode should have been the season finale, and the rest of The Seven ride in to save the day – for now.
In double tribute to Steve McQueen, Eric Close's (Without a Trace) bounty hunter with a price on his own head sharpshooter Vin Tanner uses a Mare's Leg for The Magnificent Seven. He's quiet and sensible – dressing in sandy buckskin like an angel on the shoulder contrasting Chris' gruff darkness. Chris confides in him, but they also nod to each other in an unspoken respect. Vin always says he's going to clear his name and start fresh elsewhere, but he sticks around because he's no worse than the rest of the trouble coming to town. He helps an old lady because he likes her courage and returns her things when they are stolen before insisting he is no gentleman. Vin knows Ezra keeps his money in his boots and cons him out of it for a good cause but backs out of the room when he walks in on a love triangle. Most importantly, Vin wants to do right by his late mother, and after spending time living with Native Americans in his buffalo hunting days, he insists on being on the opposite side of a lynching party – whether that seems like the wrong side or not when others go along with racist rumors. In contrast, Dale Midkiff (Pet Sematary) as raised in a brothel womanizer Buck Wilmington loves to fight against the odds if it means there are ladies to be rescued. Life's tough and then you die, so he's making the most out of it when not drunk or taking J.D. under his wing. Although he says he only puts up with him because he can't be bothered to think of something nice to say at J.D.'s funeral. There are running jokes, too, about where he left his hat or boots and how he always gets them back, and after reading a book on animal magnetism, he claims that is his curse – the reason why he can't get rid of all the women coming on to him. Then again, Buck unsuccessfully flirts with Mary Travis and has a long time cantankerous relationship with Chris. He gets wild when Chris is in danger, but also “gets the devil in him” for a little good cop, bad cop when The Seven need it.
Of course, my favorite was always Anthony Starke (License to Kill) as gambler with the southern charm and swindler style Ezra Standish. He pretends to be drunk before hustling on double or nothing odds and has more card tricks up his sleeve – literally along with his two shot. He says he stays in town for the laughs yet entertains kids with his slight of hand. Ezra may speak in fancy colloquialisms to confuse others, but he has moments of doubt, ditching the action when Chris calls his bluffs before returning in the nick of time or sleeping on the church pew with his gun ready to defend one in need. When not running afoul with the law, he's delighted to have a kid protege who knows how to cut cards, however, Ezra won't help a lady fix her fence like the rest of the men, for “a gentleman does not debase himself by engaging in menial labor.” He thanks a woman who says he'd never be mistaken for a ranch hand and refuses to give his winnings to a “wizened crone, no offense ma'am.” Ezra doesn't trust Vin and dislikes “Mr. Tanner's” Robin Hood ways, insisting he do the talking because the rest of The Seven terrorize people, have no tact, and “rude would be an improvement.” Then again, Ezra swears on the grave of his sainted mother Michelle Phillips (Knots Landing), who we later meet in “Witness” shuffling cards to exercise her rheumatism. Her luggage – filled with rocks because appearances are everything – is gen-u-wine French leather, and Ezra wishes he'd left off his return address in his letters after she embarrasses him with poker playing and childhood tall tales. Maude Standish is proof there is a god according to Josiah, for he always thought Ezra was raised by wolves, and their opposites attract is great fun. Her appearance may be brief and Maude doesn't care for Mary very much, but they have intriguing, multifaceted conversations on how raising a son never gets easy, mistakes will be made, and regrets will happen. However, she also wants to run a cotton gin investment scam on the locals, tells free fortunes to J.D., and cleanses his luck with a discounted, five dollar ritual. Maude's shocked that Ezra's employed and wasting his talents, but he insists it's his job to protect the town from people like him and her. Despite the humor, zingers, and passive aggressive smiles, this relationship gives The Magnificent Seven a dramatic undercurrent that's explored more in Year Two.
Preacher Ron Perlman (Hellboy) is rebuilding a church as his penance for killing too many men. Josiah Sanchez has already seen hell, a dry strongman who would rather face death head on than turn the other cheek. He drinks of course, turning to the wrong kind of spirit when not ringing his church bell if he spots trouble in the distance. Josiah resents his missionary father for not practicing the rhetoric he preached, but he shelters kids in his church, regaling them with tales of sacred warriors who cleanse the earth of evil – a nod perhaps to The Magnificent Seven's Samurai past. He dresses up for “Getting Gertie's Garter Show,” smitten and ready to renew her acquaintance after choosing to pursue a spiritual journey with a Cherokee medicine man over her. Josiah is a man of god with a gun who's likely to get Old Testament if he's on a mission, for his faith only goes so far. Desperate for glory Andrew Kavovit (As the World Turns) as the kid J.D., however, is jumping off the noon stage in a bowler hat – a poor eastern boy bungling everything he tries yet wanting to help nonetheless. Chris doesn't want “young and proud” written on J.D.'s tombstone, and despite taking thirty dollars a week to be sheriff, he follows Chris' orders. J.D. also takes Buck's advice when it is good but will tell him when he is full of crap, too, saying he should take a bath to get rid of his smelly animal magnetism. Josiah is embarrassed by his cultural impasses with the Native Americans, and J.D.'s jokes are terrible – “a three legged dog walks into a bar and says 'I'm looking for the man who shot my paw.'” Unfortunately, Rick Worthy's (Enterprise) former slave Nathan Jackson is the least developed member of our team. Once a stretcher bearer, Nathan had to learn medicine on the side, and his cutting skills are handy be it weapon or scalpel. He seems to be the only one that can calm Chris, whether he's yelling at him or racing to stop him from killing the wrong man. Nathan patches up Josiah the most and helps him build his church, but confronts Ezra several times, saying his faux gentility can't hide his knack for making money off the backs of others. A pesky dime novel writer wants to write his life as From Slave to Surgeon, but Nathan insist he isn't a doctor and just wants to help people.
As an original member of The Magnificent Seven, the late Robert Vaughn provides a stamp of approval to series despite appearing in only two episodes this season and four more in Year Two. Judge Travis stands in the street armed and defiant, telling troublesome men to drop their guns with a tough old law stance to counter the outlaw. As father-in-law to Laurie Holden's (Silent Hill) Mary Travis, he's a kind support helping raise her son, and The Seven take their position seriously when Judge Travis relies on their help and protection. Certainly, it might have been interesting to have had more of the passing townsfolk on The Magnificent Seven, including a western novel writer embodying fun self-referential winks, a shrewd widowed shopkeeper, and the obligatory undertaker. Initially Mary is the only strong willed person in town, trying to stop a lynching in her contrasting red dress and rifle. She's intelligent and runs her own newspaper since her husband's death – not afraid to bend the facts and write some streets ran red with blood hyperbole if such sensational headlines keep the bad element out of town. Mary wants to know everything about these heroes, and she's obviously curious about Chris, who she initially vilifies before realizing you need someone like him to keep away the real riffraff. Mary has moment with each of The Seven, helping Nathan, providing womanly insights, or just being nosy about the latest danger. She admits she has a say in the town and will say it whether anybody wants to hear it or not. Her press is small and doesn't need more employees, but she objects that it is high and mighty prejudice when she won't higher a working girl. The Magnificent Seven opens with Mary as harsh and all business yet softens her as a woman by having her get rough to protect her son. She dresses down and is ready to ride when he is missing. Of course, this being a good old fashioned western, Mary is put in peril and in need of rescue a time or two.
With such feel good music and lively open credits, we know we're in for a good time on The Magnificent Seven. Big smiles, winks, and smooth profiles set off the snippets of adventure amid saloons, player pianos, horses, and western main streets. Perhaps some of the set looks a little cardboard stock simple, but that's almost expected in the western tradition with a general store, telegraphs, and pocket watches. Dusty breezes or sunny outdoor filming make up for any facades alongside well done action stunts and wagon chases across a variety of natural terrains. Dusters, boots, spurs, and cowboy hats make for some big entrances through the swinging saloon doors, and references to Kit Carson and western dime novels provide an extra touch. While the Native American designs are colorful, they are unfortunately not tribe specific – a surprising oversight when The Magnificent Seven otherwise has an award winning attention to detail with lace, frills, gloves, parasols, and bonnets. Thankfully, weapons, scopes, stagecoaches, saddles, and leather provide a rough and crusty to match the deadpans. Although the familiar, even whimsical cues suggest when to be amused, the audience isn't underestimated with over editing or extra visual excess. Granted, the nineties action is small scale with up close on the camera corners and slow motion emphasis on the nick of time moment amid the shootouts. Night time filming can be tough to see and the video transfer is grainy. However, this is also an era where not every smirk, trick shot, or cool moment has to be a GIF in the making, and The Magnificent Seven allows viewers to chuckle when we want to not when we are told. Big silhouettes, sunset skies, and riding across the prairie set off the pre-Y2K escapism even as our boys are wounded, shot, and bloodied. The theme has some down notes too – playing in a lower key when one of our boys gets angry. Perhaps today's audience also has to consider that this Magnificent Seven wasn't that far removed from the Original Film's sequels before the western in the eighties death knell. Young Guns and Bon Jovi briefly stirred a cowboy cool before the dark and realistic likes of Unforgiven, and with its action adventure and sardonic sophistication, on the surface The Magnificent Seven seems to be the male answer to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The Magnificent Seven served as mid-season filler on CBS between Dr. Quinn's final season and Walker, Texas Ranger when believe it or not – the whole family stayed in on Saturday nights and watched westerns. Ironically, the writer who penned the most overall episodes of The Magnificent Seven, is Melissa Rosenberg, of later Dexter and now Jessica Jones. Back then I taped The Magnificent Seven when it originally aired, and the DVD releases seemed late coming. After sporadic reruns on the western channels and current streaming opportunities, the thing that excites me most is subtitles. Some of those pseudo Old West shaggy looking mullet hairstyles, err no.
Despite a few standard plots, great characters, atmosphere, and personality keep The Magnificent Seven fresh and friendly. By placing charm and western spirit above post-modern grit, this quick First Season of The Magnificent Seven provides rousing crescendos and riding into the sunset adventure for the whole family.