Joshua, Joshua, Joshua! (in Jan Brady voice)

I haven't been reviewing much Trackdown recently because, honestly, the first two thirds of the first season haven't been that thrilling. The creative team of the time said that they were trying to create a Western version of Dragnet. And... well, they succeeded. Robert Culp as Hoby Gilman has some room to play around with characterization and such. And there are a few continuing characters. But most of the episodes have Hoby rolling into town, teaming up with the local sheriff, and solving some crime. There are variations on this, to be sure, but he hasn't set up yet in the town of Porterville as acting sheriff.


So if you're not that thrilled by Dragnet, you won't be that thrilled by season 1 Trackdown, either. Assuming you care enough about either show to watch.

But that brings us to the idea of back-door pilots. The Simpsons made the concept fairly well-known when it did "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase". But a spinoff is different than a backdoor pilot. A spinoff takes a regular character on a show (popular or otherwise), and... well, spins them off . The character may be major or minor, but they're an existing character.

A backdoor pilot, on the other hand, uses one show to bring in an entirely new character with the intent of making that character the feature in a new series. Common examples include Gary Seven in Star Trek's "Assignment: Earth", Mr. Bevis in the Twilight Zone episode "Mr. Bevis", Mork in the Happy Days episode "My Favorite Orkan", and the whole Chicago monster families in the Supernatural episode "Bloodlines". The main characters of the hosting series (if there are any, see "Mr. Bevis") are typically reduced to secondary characters. Their job is mostly to stand back and admire the intended regular characters. Sometimes they lend a helping hand or provide some necessary exposition.


The intended Wayward Sisters series coming off of Supernatural would be a spinoff, since, Sheriff Jody and her adopted daughters are existing characters.

There are also weird variations that are neither one, or are some of both. For instance, the 1960s Batman and Green Hornet apparently share the same universe, since the two of them teamed up on Batman. But before that team-up, Green Hornet and Kato cameoed during a wall-climbing scene. And on Green Hornet, episodes of Batman aired on TVs in two separate episodes. So technically Green Hornet was neither a spinoff of Batman, nor was the Batman/Green Hornet team-up episode a pilot for the Green Hornet series.

Confused yet? You will be. Because this all brings us to Wanted: Dead or Alive, featuring actor Steve McQueen as bounty hunter Josh Randall. The show was created by Four Star Productions and CBS (as was Trackdown), and is arguably the first TV show to cast a big movie star as a TV actor. Yes, it's common as dirt these days. But back in 1958, it was a pretty rare thing. And in '58, McQueen wasn't that big a movie star. His big movie days lie ahead with The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bullitt.


Still, Wanted ran for three seasons, 94 episodes, so it didn't do too bad. It featured Randall as an easy-going ex-Confederate soldier who like many Western protagonists of the time, is polite, well-spoken, interested in justice more than money, and abides by the heavily fictionalized Code of the Old West. His fast-draw 1892 carbine also won Randall and the show some fans.


But even in '58, some shows need an introduction on another show. And so we get the Trackdown 1957 episode "The Bounty Hunter". It starts with Josh looking at a wanted poster for Nate Phillips. Josh tears down the poster, and when the local sheriff challenges him, Josh says that he's going to find Nate and boasts about how incredibly skilled he is at tracking down people. You get the impression that Josh has a personal score to settle.

Then we cut to Josh riding into Big Bend. The show's only main character, Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, is sitting in the sheriff's office doing jack-all as far as I can tell. Josh comes in and politely explains that he's a bounty hunter and likes to check in with the law to make sure he isn't stepping on any toes. Apparently he either forgot to do this with the sheriff in the opening sequence, or he doesn't bother to do it until he actually finds a city with his target. Because Josh sure stepped on the sheriff's toes in the last city he was in as he ripped down a wanted poster.

Anyhoo, Hoby is intrigued by this plucky good-looking stranger. They end up betting that the poster Josh saw--which was issued by an individual and not the law--turns up nothing for the promised $500 reward. Josh takes the bet and the stakes are a hat. Because apparently Josh really loves his hats. Although the black hat he's wearing doesn't look any different to me than any other hat of the period. I'm also pretty sure they dropped this when Wanted went to series.


The two men then start trailing Nate. It turns out that Nate is the love 'em and leave 'em type. They find his ex-wife that he abandoned out of town, and a saloon girl named Jannette who was also involved with Nate. Nate's pattern is that he seduces women and gets them to invest in his business (although the aforementioned Mrs. Phillips doesn't seem to have any money). Either that, or as narrator Ed Prentiss tells us in an extended monologue, Nate falls in love with women, gets bored with them, and just takes off to find another woman to love and leave.

Rather oddly, the narrator says that Hoby hasn't seen that kind of behavior before but Josh has. Like Hoby is some kind of neophyte who has never left his hometown in Texas before. It's a little weird that they're casting the newcomer as the voice of experience and the main character as the inexperienced prat. Then again, this is a backdoor pilot and that's the kind of thing they do. Just like Gary Seven is immune to Spock's neck pinch because Gary is just that much of a stud.

Anyhoo, Hoby decides to tag along as Josh rides after Nate. Because it must be a slow week for the Texas Rangers. And then we get the narrator describing Hoby and Josh's bromance to us. Well, not exactly, but it's hard not to apply 21st century sensibilities to a long narrative sequence where Mr. Prentiss says that over the next two days of travel, Hoby came to know Josh and slowly changed his opinion of him. Let's face it: if one of them were a woman and the show was 60 minutes instead of 30, we'd be seeing fireplaces and stock footage of rockets launching. And that's in '57. If it was modern-day, well.. move over, Brokeback Mountain, because here comes the gravy pipe!


They eventually arrive in Nate's next city, and check the hotels and restaurants. Josh eventually stumbles across his old friend Felix (James Griffith, who later became a recurring character in the Porterville episodes as the town barber). The implication is that Felix is some kind of former criminal gone straight. Josh wants info about Nate and Felix just happens to have it. Felix asks Josh not to make him risk his life giving up information (against the womanizing non-violent Nate?), but Josh turns on the manly charms and tosses in a threat or two. And Felix soon squeals like a piggy. All while praising Josh as a good friend. He all but says, "Ooh, Josh, you're so dreamy."

Hoby and Josh then find Nate's hotel room, and his dead partner therein. The partner is murdered, and they figure Nate is responsible. They then trail Nate some more, and we get another narration about how Hoby and Josh are becoming fast friends. They then find Nate in the next town. He and Jannette are talking, because she's tracked Nate down to get that $500 bounty. Nate knocks Hoby through a saloon window, something that would never happen if Hoby were the star of the episode. Then Nate and Josh fight and Nate gets the upper hand, until Hoby comes back in and cold-cocks Nate.


Our two lawmen interrogate Nate. And in a pointless story-lengthening, Nate spends about 10 seconds saying he didn't kill the partner. And then breaks down and confesses to the murder. If the creative team were going to have Nate confess, why waste screen time having Nate deny it?

Anyhoo, when Nate finds out who put the bounty on his head, he laughs. They go to visit the guy, Ira, so that Josh can collect his $500. Turns out the guy is in jail, and refuses to pay because Josh was just supposed to find Nate so that Ira could kill him when he got out of jail for cuckolding Ira. Since Josh actually threw Nate in jail (although he didn't, not really), Ira ain't paying.

At the end, Hoby and Josh share a chuckle and Josh collects on his bet. Because, I guess he... won because he brought Nate to justice and got something out of it. Anyhoo, the two men go off for a drink and that's the end of that until '58 when Wanted goes to series. McQueen would later appear as an unrelated character in the Trackdown episode, "The Brothers", which I reviewed earlier. He's pretty good in that, too, more as the evil twin brother than the good one.


Robert Culp doesn't have much to do in this episode except look in on the proceedings, ride with Josh, and occasionally throw him an admiring glance. The real indication this is a backdoor pilot is Mr. Prentiss' narration. Mr. Prentiss sounds a little like Lorne Greene, and was one of those old-timey Western narrators who got his start in radio and migrated to TV. Usually he provides Dragnet-style narration at the beginning and end of episodes, explaining what crime was committed before the episode ended or what happens down the road. "Three months later Billy Bob Clanton was convicted and hung of cattle rustling." That kind of thing.


Occasionally Mr. Prentiss either says something pithy, or provides a brief insight into Hoby's mind. The usual omniscient voiceover stuff. But here he just gushes over Josh. He has four (count' em, four!) narrations about how wonderful being a bounty hunter is, and how Hoby is warming up to Josh. As well as the aforementioned speech about how Mrs. Phillips is an abandoned wife and Josh is used to seeing it and Hoby isn't. Because... abandoned wives put up rewards for bounty hunters to bring in their husbands? Heck if I know.

As for Trackdown reviews, don't expect too many more. Maybe I'll do "End of the World" if it loops back around on MeTV. Since it features a guy named Trump who shows up in a border town and tries to convince the townspeople to give him money to build a wall. An invisible magnetic wall to keep out illegal meteorites, but a wall nonetheless.


So if you really like Steve McQueen, or you're big into Wanted: Dead or Alive, or both, "The Bounty Hunter" is the episode for you. It's a competent introduction to the character, even if a bit of it (like the hat fetish) gets dropped and some of the Wanted elements like the carbine aren't seen.

But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?
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Aug 16, 2017
Speaking of backdoor pilots, I'm surprised you didn't mention CSI Miami and CSI New York, not to mention NCIS.

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Aug 16, 2017
I typically avoid the CSI and NCIS shows. ;)
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Aug 16, 2017
Josh Randall in "The Bounty Hunter" reminds more of Lord Bowler (from The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.) than the Josh Randall from Wanted: Dead or Alive. I actually prefer the Trackdown episodes where Hoby isn't in Porter. My three favorite episodes are "Guilt," "A Matter of Justice," and "Three-Legged Fox."
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Aug 16, 2017
I think the later non-Porter episodes are better: the early ones (so far in Season 1) are a bit of a slog. All the ones you cited are Season 2.

As I noted in an early review or two, the Porter population tend to be... well, jerks.
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Aug 16, 2017
They may all be season 2 episodes, but only one of them is set in Porter. I can definitely see the Dragnet parallel though in the early episodes. I might make a point to rewatch "A Cold Night's Death" since Christopher Knopf wrote it. I generally like Robert Culp's TV movies from the early '70s.
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Aug 16, 2017
Unfortunately, I don't have Cold Night recorded anywhere. It's one I always wanted to watch.
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Aug 16, 2017
Actually it looks like it's on Youtube now. Didn't used to be.
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Aug 15, 2017
Wanted: Dead Or Alive was a great show. Never seen Trackdown at all. Hoping that it comes to our local GET.TV channel some day.
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Aug 15, 2017
Trackdown is currently running on MeTV and H&I. I don't think it's running on GetTV. I'm kind of surprised that it isn't on that retro network.

Although GetTV is running a Steve McQueen retrospective this Saturday at 6:20 am EST.
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