“Guy in car: Taking a trip?
Guy in car: Where to?
Bronson: Oh, I don’t know. Wherever I end up I guess.
Guy in car: Man, I wish I was you.”
There is a certain genre of dramatic entertainment that is not necessarily unique to television, but which occurs more often on the small screen than the big screen. The weekly recurrence of episodic television has much to do with this preference of medium. You will recognize the familiar pattern of plot even if the characters and situations and plot mechanics of the show you immediately think of is utterly different from the show that others immediately think of first. Call him the mysterious stranger, the gunslinger, the knight in the shining armor, the drifter or whatever…you recognize him when you see him. And you know the lives of those he touches will be forever altered by all-too-brief intrusion into their existence.
Robert Carroll played a character known simply as the Stranger on this low budget offering from the low-budget Dumont Network in 1955. Anthology shows were all the rage in the 1950s and many of them had gimmicks wrapped around a specific theme or writer or genre. “The Stranger” adopted the gimmick of having each separate and unrelated story connected to a single character who appeared in each of them. He was the existential stranger who arrives unbidden into the lives of people who find themselves in need of help against an external danger. By the end of the episode, everything would be set right and the Stranger would go on his way like Shane, never accepting payment and wanting only to know that he’d helped.
Just a few months after “The Stranger” premiered, a similar sort of tale showed up one night on ABC. In one form or another, it would not disappear from the air for another eight years. Perhaps audiences of the 1950s just preferred their mysterious drifters in a western setting. Certainly “Cheyenne” seemed closer in tone to “Shane” which is sort of a big screen version of this genre of entertainment. Cheyenne Brodie might affect the lives of strangers on a riverboat in St. Louis one week and be part of a cattle drive through Texas the next. The main thing setting this example of the drifter in shining armor was that some characters returned for multiple episodes and Cheyenne didn’t wind up in a different town every week.
Then Came Bronson
“Then Came Bronson” lasted about as long as “The Stranger” but it has managed to stick to the collective consciousness of those who were around when it aired far longer. Heck, TV’s Frank on “MST3K” is almost OCD about the uber-cool Bronson and his existential motorcycle ride through life following the suicide of his friend. That motorcycle took Jim Bronson to a ghost town inhabited by a survivor of the Titanic and to bush league baseball team in order to help Kurt Russell fulfill his dream of being a ballplayer. Bronson wasn’t just a drifter, he was a man with a purpose to him aimlessness. When he took off on that trip toward wherever he might end up, he had left behind his possessions and his old life. He had become, you might say, awake.
The mysterious stranger concept still wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the Old West even as the genre was already dying. It just needed an infusion of new ideas. Or, perhaps, ancient ideas. Rather than an existential drifter, Caine in “Kung Fu” might be called a Buddhist drifter. As he traveled mostly by foot through the strange land of the American West, this drifter became a catalyst for change among blind preachers, crazed adolescents and members of the Tong!
“Quantum Leap” took a, well, quantum leap in the plot device of the drifter extending a helping hand. Sam Beckett’s advancements in physics made it possible for him to travel not only in space, but time. As if that weren’t enough, he could have an even greater impact on the lives of others by appearing to them as someone familiar rather than a mysterious stranger. All those additions to the trope aside, the basic premise of “Quantum Leap” was essentially no different from from “The Stranger.”