Discovering the exceptional in every way 1971-72 24-episode Western dramedy "Nichols" through the recent Warner Archive complete series DVD reveal is an ideal example of the awesome surprises that make reviewing DVDs worthwhile.
No surprise exists regarding the multiple clever concepts of this show luring James Garner, who plays a highly reluctant indentured local sheriff who sorely needs all the support that he can get, back to television after making "The Great Escape" and many other films in the nine years following his lengthy run on the classic Western "Maverick."
Series creator and writer Frank R. Pierson, who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for "Dog Day Afternoon," came up with the perfect show for the era in which the networks were transitioning from rural comedies, such as "Green Acres" and "The Andy Griffith Show," and traditional Westerns to more urban and modern-issue oriented programs.
Pierson sets Nichols in the fictional border town of Nichols, Arizona in 1914. The opening credits scene in which a motorcycle rider comes up on the heels of a man on horseback is the perfect image of this era in which horseless carriages are just beginning to overtake the more traditional ones. Further, this final frontier of the continental United States has the modern amenities of telephone service and electricity. These changes additionally prompt many townspeople to desire a more civilized way of life than they led in the era before those luxuries.
Garner plays Nichols the man, who is from the once prominent family for which the town is named. Nichols is an Army officer when we meet him; becoming weary of Army life in general and warfare specifically prompt him to retire with dreams of living the good life where his family enjoys at least the same prestige as much of Massachusetts still grants the Kennedys.
The harsh reality that greets Nichols is that his family's fortunes and its members have both vanished. Things rapidly go from bad to worse when obtaining a debt that he cannot repay forces Nichols to become the town's sheriff in much the same way that repaying funding for medical school requires that "Northern Exposure" character Dr. Joel Fleishman spends several years treating the oddball citizens of Cicely, Alaska roughly 20 years after "Nichols" airs.
Also, like Fleishman, Nichols continues amassing the debt that makes him the town's indentured civil servant. "Nichols" not lasting long enough for that character to work out that period of servitude will disappoint everyone who watches this awesome rarely-seen series.
In an apparently intentional nod to another great CBS series, Nichols takes a cue from Sheriff Andy Taylor of "Griffith" in refusing to carry a gun. The difference is that Nichols is more cynical than Taylor in reasoning that he will feel obliged to use a gun if he carries one and does not consider very much to be worth killing for.
The great supporting cast also adds to "Nichols" appeal; Margot Kidder of the '70s and '80s "Superman" films does a great job playing free-spirited wild-haired crazy-eyed barmaid Ruth decades before Kidder temporarily went feral.
The playful flirtation/friendship between Ruth and Nichols is a great element of "Nichols," and a scene between them in the pilot is one of the series' best moments. Ruth asks Nichols if he can think of a way for a woman to earn a living in 1914 other than being a nurse or a teacher. Nichols responds by flashing Garner's trademark awesome smile and asking "legally?"
It is also fun to see Stuart Margolin, who plays the sleazy opportunist/lead character's good buddy Angel on Garner's later series "The Rockford Files," as sleazy opportunist/lead character's good buddy Mitchell on "Nichols."
Original "Dallas'" John Beck plays wealthy landowner/idiot and Nichols adversary Ketcham. The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, provides a good sense both of the Ketcham/Nichols relationship and the series' overall style.
Accomplished character actor Neva Patterson keeps Ketcham in line as his mother, who makes Granny of "The Beverly Hillbillies" look like a even-tempered Daughter of the American Revolution. Her chemistry with Nichols is the best of any character, and one of their many shining moments involves him asking Ma Ketcham if her visiting daughter who she wants him to meet is as much woman as Ma is.
The conflict mixed with mutual regard that characterizes the Nichols/Ma Ketcham relationship takes center stage in one of the series' best episodes, which also involves "Nichols'" common theme of white man/Indian (there was no such thing as native Americans in 1914 or even 1971) relations.
Early in the episode, Ma Ketcham forces Nichols to evict a man from his home and take most of his worldly possessions to help satisfy a debt that the man owes her. Ma Ketcham's response to Nichols' objections to taking the little that the man has to pay his wealthy creditor is that "business is business."
Nichols soon meeting an obviously well-educated Indian who most white men still view as an uneducated savage provides a chance for revenge. This man enlists Nichols' assistance evicting the Ketchams from land that the man states that the federal government granted his grandfather as a reward for serving as an indian scout. Nichols' response to Ma Ketcham's objections is that "the law is the law."
The scene in that episode in which Nichols and Ma Ketcham try negotiating a settlement that will avoid bloodshed is "must-see;" the episode's conclusion is even better.
Another good episode with a similar theme involves an Indian man hunting a deer two weeks before the hunting season begins. the younger Ketcham's motives for seeking to enforce that law include a desire to shoot that particular deer himself. This effort to ensure that "the buck stops here" (of course pun intended) raises issues related to the conflicts between white man's and indian's laws and their incredibly different views toward nature.
Despite heavy competition from actors such as M. Emmett Walsh and "M*A*S*H's" William Christopher, character actor Lou Wagner earns the award for best guest star on "Nichols." His awesome portrayal of a quirky and psychotic mass murderer utilizes the same highly entertaining oddball nature as Wagner brings to his largely silent role in the personal all-time favorite family comedy "Hello Down There."
The aptly named on many levels series' finale "All in the Family" is a perfect one for ending "Nichols" run if only for its shocking developments and being a textbook example of an episode that can serve as a season or series finale. This one opens with a confrontation between Nichols and one of the most ruthless adversaries that he faces in the series' 24 episodes.
The pre-opening credits segment ends with the fatal shooting of a main character, the first scene after those credits will create chills for Garner fans, the penultimate scene is somewhat predictable but still awesome, and the final scene brings the series full circle and pays homage to all great Westerns.
The "High Noon" conclusion regarding "Nichols" is that it truly has something for everything and is exactly the type of rarity that utilizes DVD technology well.