When the cavalry becomes too mechanized Nichols (first name never used, though he has one) goes back home to a town his family founded, Nichols, AZ. He thinks he can fit right back into the swim after fifteen years, but Nichols (the town) has changed. Though Nichols' family founded the the place, it's now run by the mean-spirited Ma Ketchum and her ne'er-do-well son (played by John Beck). Thanks to some debts Nichols incurs with her, Ma Ketchum forces him to work it off--as Sheriff.
"Nichols" plays almost like what would happen to James Garner's character from "Support Your Local Sheriff" after that movie; or, since it's set in the early twentieth century were they have cars, motorcycles and telephones, perhaps his son.
Star James Garner had one of the winningest personalities in television history. First monkeying with the role of a western hero in "Maverick" (which he parlayed into a successful film career in the 1960s, including the best western spoof ever, "Support Your Local Sheriff") Garner went on, after Nichols, to change the idea of the t.v. private eye in "The Rockford Files." "Nichols" is Garner's first return to the small screen when his film career began puttering out, and it lasted one season. It's easy to see why.
Television was changing in the early 70s but the direction was unsure. Like another casualty of 1971, "The Jimmy Stewart Show", "Nichols" was a quality show, but . . . well, strange. "The Jimmy Stewart Show" was a family comedy that experimented with doing away with a laugh track, which may have confused people who have to be cued when to titter. "Nichols" went another experimental way that did not pay off.
In the 1960s comedies were half-hour affairs, drama shows (medical, cop, "adult" westerns--which meant that at the end someone wound up being taken away draped over the back of a horse) were one hour. In the 1970s "comedies" ventured into "issues" and became less funny while hour-long "dramas" became sillier ("Kolshak"; "Charlie's Angels"; "The Rockford Files", etc.). Nichols was an early exemplar in this direction, being very funny in taut, dramatic situations.
Every episode of "Nichols" was like a take on "Support Your Local Sheriff." Garner was at his best when he played the huckster or conman with the welcoming smile and the laid back ways, delivering his lines like it's almost too much work to talk; but who, when the chips were down, always let himself be talked into doing the right thing over his better judgement. "Nichols" exploited this to the fullest, with Nichols begin a sheriff able to use a gun or his fists, but willing to avoid it whenever possible. Not because he had scruples about hurting people, but because they might shoot him.
But it's hard to show "thinking" on the screen. Nichols might have outwitted one foe after another, but it was the dramatic showdown with the bad guys that let "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza" run so long. "Nichols" could use more action which, unfortunately, means violence. Too, the western had almost run its course by the time "Nichols" came along.
The series starts badly. Its pilot is one of the dullest I've seen. Perhaps trying to make the town feel like a town, "Nichols" has too many characters. Guest stars (Jack Elam, Strother Martin, etc.) livened individual episodes, but some of the shows are simply uninteresting. And after a while the formula begins to drag. And for all its quality "Nichols" often feels under-rehearsed and slapdash. And almost every show has too much extraneous dialogue that means nothing and goes nowhere.
One season was all "Nichols" got, but I doubt the formula would have lasted much longer. "Support Your Local Sheriff" had been made and did not need to be remade week after week. Then, in the last episode of the first season, the show took a revolutionary direction that never materialized since it never got a season two. But the new direction was shocking in its inception. A desperate play to grab an audience, it had Nichols . . .
. . . killed and a soap-opera look-alive brother brought in (I think in Season Two it would prove to be the first Nichols, but we'll never know).
One good thing, this show was Garner's first pairing with Stuart Margolin, who went on to be Jim Rockford's Angel Martin.
This series is only for people who, like me, won't overdose on Garner's folksy charm.