TV & Film: Myth illogical heroes

Culture | On television, the Hercules and Xena franchises simply aren't ancient enough

Issue: "Focus on a family feud," Feb. 27, 1998

The ancient tall tales have always been a staple of movies and television, but the latest trend is not merely to revisit the pantheon but to inflict revisionist mores upon our Greek and Roman roots. Before Disney's stupefying Hercules (coming this month to a video store near you), producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert had hit paydirt on the small screen with their hormonal Hercules and hermaphroditic Xena. Besides buffed-up actors, spectacular Spielbergian monsters, and hissably petty antagonists, the storylines are a mishmash of fractured history, mutilated mythology, New Age theology, and feminist theory. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys stars Kevin Sorbo as the hero who regularly challenges the gods with "a strength the world had never seen--surpassed only by the strength of his heart" and Michael Hurst as his hipster sidekick, Iolaus. The usual segment pits the easy-going Hercules, half-mortal son of Zeus, against a wily enemy attempting to destroy him on behalf of the bigoted Hera, who sees Hercules as the living evidence of her husband's infidelity. The writers have a flair for lowbrow comedy and often nestle their disdain of the traditional family within terrible puns, campy pratfalls, karate stunts, and subplots worthy of a French bedroom farce. It's a formula that disarms its critics with laughter. While Hercules portrays the mindless heartbreaker, Xena, Warrior Princess tries to be more serious. Again, Mr. Raimi and Mr. Tapert apply the formula: a good-looking lead actor, earnest sidekick, goofy or spectacular conflicts, situational ethics, and the skimpiest costumes allowed over the airwaves. The twist this time, however, is scripting that takes itself seriously in the New Age and feminist vein. Lucy Lawless as the indomitable Xena and Renee O'Conner as her earth mother companion, Gabrielle, are thinking women. But what are they thinking? A recent episode pitted the heroines against each other. Both, by circumstances beyond their control, are single parents. One child is normal-the product of ancient child care-and has grown up into an ideal youth while mom has been off picking fights with bad men for the last 12 years. The other child, offspring of god-woman rape, is a Bad Seed child who smiles while murdering innocents. Gabrielle is convinced that her daughter, Hope, can overcome her genetic heritage until Xena's child is found dead. At this point, Xena makes the case for infanticide as she berates Gabrielle for not killing the baby at birth and insists that Hope is not a person-just a body that contains an evil spirit. Gabrielle dutifully poisons the girl. As the women cremate their offspring, Gabrielle tells Xena, "I love you." The direct-to-video cartoon, Hercules and Xena: The Battle For Mount Olympus, combining the characters in a bizarre story, is one cheap production, with stick-figure animation and astonishingly bad music. The plotline elevates adultery as a natural and pleasant state of affairs; the wronged wife is a homicidal shrew; and our heroes-like Clinton supporters-champion the cause of the adulterous Zeus because he does his job (running the world) so well. As if these weren't enough, Universal Television is producing yet another spin-off aimed directly at children: Young Hercules, which just debuted. Hercules and Xena could use that neat little stage contraption the classical Greek dramatists would roll out, the deus ex machina. Whenever the characters' entanglements became a little too messy, a god would descend to restore the moral order.

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