Down Under the Influence: ‘The Highwayman’

Ty Matejowsky considers NBC’s short-lived action series as the last gasp of Oz-mania in Reagan’s America.

“Created by veteran television producer/writers Glen A. Larson and Douglas Heyes, The Highwayman reflected nothing so much as the full-on embrace of a prevailing Australophilia then sweeping through the popular American imagination.”

1988’s short-lived U.S. action-series The Highwayman blended Mad Max’s lawless post-apocalyptic desertscapes and outsized comic book villains with Knight Riders sleek crimefighting vehicular technology and laughable non-lethal weaponry into a curious hybrid of one-hour prime-time programming that left NBC viewers wholly indifferent to its cheesy one-dimensional characters and derivative sci-fi premise. Indeed, determining just how much of the show was supposed to be some cyberpunk Western set against a dystopian backdrop or how much of it was a neo-noir crime drama showcasing futuristic auto machineryall constrained by episodic television’s limited budgets and tight shooting schedules – proved no easy feat.

Never finding an audience over a nine episode run, The Highwayman – starring Flash Gordon’s Sam Jones (this time naturally brunette) in the eponymous role as a mysterious leather-clad figure wandering the wastelands looking to right wrongs like some latter-day Clint Eastwood – quickly slipped into obscurity after its May 1988 cancellation. Today, few if any retro-TV aficionados fondly remember this flash-in-thepan small screen ephemera much less embrace it as some lost cult classic or quaint unsung sleeper hit a la Misfits of Science, Whiz Kids or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

That said, The Highwayman’s unceremonious exit from network television and collective memory anticipated the imminent death knell of America’s intense but now largely forgotten love affair with all things Australian following Paul Hogan’s star-making turn as the unflappable fish-out-ofwater bushman in 1986’s second highest grossing U.S. box-office hit, Crocodile Dundee.

The popularity of this global movie phenomenon revealed a previously unknown U.S. appetite for just about anything approximating “authentic” Australiana whether actually imported from down under or disingenuously developed stateside.

If anything, Crocodile Dundee seized upon and then quickly surpassed mounting U.S. interest in the so-called “Lucky Country,coming on the heels of Robert Hughes’s authoritative bestseller, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding (1986), Men at Work’s U.S. chart-topper Down Under (January 1983), the Australian Tourism Commission’s iconic “Come and say G’day” American ad campaign – “I’ll slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for you” (Paul Hogan) the original Mad Max trilogy (1979-1985), The Thorn Birds miniseries (1983), and Olivia Newton-John’s Koala Blue mall retail chain (1983).

The American cultural industry’s shameless exploitation of proven formulas and bankable properties effectively went into hyperdrive post-Crocodile Dundee, opening the spigot on whatever passed for genuine Australiana, steadily eroding audience interest with each passing iteration of outback authenticity as The Highwayman’s fleeting lifespan so readily suggests.

Created by veteran television producer/writers Glen A. Larson and Douglas Heyes, The Highwayman’s flashy opening sequence features Video Toaster-style computer graphics, sweeping Monument Valley vistas, RGB laser tunnel fog machine effects, and an overabundance of Jim McMahon hair-gel, all unfolding over some vaguely menacing William Conrad narration (“There is a world, just beyond now, where reality runs a razor thin seam between fact and possibility…”).

What began promisingly enough as a September 1987 two-hour television movie pilot – later renamed Terror on the Blacktop – subsequently devolved some six months later into an overstuffed speculative near-future action narrative replete with an edgy Australian good guy misfit crudely shoehorned into the show. The Highwayman’s new cast and directionhowever contrived and retroactively ill-advised reflected nothing so much as the full-on embrace of a prevailing Australophilia then sweeping through the popular American imagination.

This two to three year fixation on the Land Down Under roughly the latter-half of 1986 through early 1989 – precipitated various new “Australian” products/venues in the American retailscape Matilda Bay wine coolers (1987), Outback Steakhouse (1988), and Koala Springs juiced-flavor mineral water (1989) similarly finding expression across multiple genres of U.S. pop culture. NBC’s long running hit The Facts of Life not only filmed a television movie in Australia The Facts of Life Down Under (February 1987) but later also introduced an Australian exchange student, Pippa McKenna (Sherrié Austin), as a new character for the show’s final two seasons (1987-1988).

Similarly, ESPN began airing professional Australian rules football matches around this time and even Playboy magazine featured Australian Shannon Long as its October 1988 Playmate of the Month. Moreover, Australian bands INXS (Kick), Midnight Oil (Diesel and Dust), and Icehouse (Man of Colours) had their biggest American chart success during these post-Crocodile Dundee years.

Against this backdrop, the presumed secret sauce of The Highwayman’s anticipated series success was notorious Aussie Rules Football brawler Mark “Jacko” Jackson as Jones’s pugnacious spikey haired sidekick, “Jetto,an outback survivalist who brought both comic relief and extra muscle to The Highwayman’s weekly adventures, wielding a boomerang, no less, in pursuit of the show’s overblown bad guys.

Already famous in the States for his over-the-top Energizer Battery commercials – “Get Energizer! It’ll surprise you! Oi!” – Jacko (not to be confused with tabloid press’s uncharitable nickname for the King of Pop) seemed intent on leveraging his post-football fame for all it was worth, releasing a hit pop single I’m an Individual (1985) and its less-successful follow-up Me Brain Hurts”(1985) in his island homeland, later delighting(?) toy-buyers with the “Oi! Jacko Gym” action figure.

Jacko’s edgy aesthetic evoked the punkish peroxide look of, say, Billy Idol, Brian “The Boz” Bosworth, Blade Runner’s Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), and Synchronicity-era Sting, all suffused with a healthy dose of cartoonish WWF ringside bluster. Despite the manic alpha-male energy he brought to the role, it wasn’t enough to sustain audience interest in Jacko let alone sufficiently prop up a series getting walloped in the ratings with diminishing weekly Nielsen returns. Once The Highwaymans brief network run mercifully ended – coincidentally just a few weeks before Crocodile Dundee’s less successful sequel officially hit theatres – Jacko returned to his native Australia where he still enjoys some measure of celebrity albeit in a reality television where-are-they-now sort of way.

Whatever traces of recognition The Highwayman elicits nowadays, it is effectively eclipsed by those of similarly themed albeit more enduring action shows like Street Hawk, Air Wolf, Viper and Blue Thunder. Indeed, if The Highwayman is recalled for anything today, it is probably the title character’s tricked-out futuristic R.V. which resembles an extended crew cab 18-wheeler married to a 80s multibunk tour bus with a mothballed Cold War aircraft nosecone awkwardly affixed to its elevated motor train. In fact, within the context of the show, both Jones and Jacko often escaped imminent danger when the hi-tech rig cab morphed into a jet-power helicopter, whisking them away from potential jeopardy.

Once the show was permanently shelved, this unholy combination of random machinery somehow avoided scrapyard oblivion, undergoing extensive restoration and upgrades, now serving as the world’s largest mobile tattoo parlour, aptly named “Highway Man Ink,” based out of Sulphur Springs, Texas. As a product forever linked to America’s late80s Australophilia, the vehicle endures as a stark reminder of what happens when trend-chasing commerce fails to anticipate shifting audience sensibilities amid the diminishing returns of uncritical bandwagoneering.

❉ ‘The Highwayman’ was created by Glen A. Larson and Douglas Heyes. The series (9 episodes) originally aired on NBC, September 20, 1987 – May 6, 1988.

Ty Matejowsky is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He has published various pieces with We Are The Mutants, The Middling Spaces, and Sports Literate. His book Smothered and Covered: Waffle House and the Southern Imaginary (University of Alabama Press) came out in 2022.

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1 Comment

  1. I used to watch this. I recall ITV shoved it into the midnight hours in the middle of the week. Clearly they didn’t rate it much either – though they also used to put Sledgehammer out in that spot as well.

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