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The power of myths. Looking like they just stepped out of ancient mythology, two TV superheroes have muscled their way into pop culture

Posted 01-12-99

The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)
By Page D1
Photo: "Kevin Sorbo plays the legendary Greek hero in the syndicated series Hercules" Photo: "Lucy Lawless stars in Xena: The Warrior Princess, a syndicated series that's becoming a cult favorite" Photo: "Renee O'Connor plays Gabrielle in the syndicated series Xena: The Warrior Princess"

A detailed article. Quotes Siegfried Nelson and mentions he wrote a WHOOSH article [Cry Murder: The Politics and Ethics of Homicide in Xena: Warrior Princess], and also mentions Melissa Meister's WHOOSH paper [Important of Sapphic Subtext in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS] as well.


   Siegfried Nelson is typical of the people who have turned Xena: Warrior
Princess into one of television's hottest cult favorites.

   When the lawyer-turned-freelance-writer first became aware of the top-rated
syndicated action series -- and of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, the show
that spawned Xena -- 'I think I was repelled.'

   But that was before he actually watched Xena, having seen nothing more than
quick glimpses of striking, leather-clad bodies while channel surfing. Once he
tuned in, Nelson found a show 'much more intelligently written than I had

   Thus, the Jacksonville resident joined legions of devotees of these
slightly-kitschy chronicles of ancient gods, goddesses and merely clever

   (The programs are shown twice a week in the Jacksonville area on WTEV TV-47:
Hercules at 8 p.m. Fridays and again at 6 p.m. Sundays, and Xena at 9 p.m.
Fridays and again at 7 p.m. on Sundays.)

   Hercules and Xena, both filmed on location in New Zealand on modest budgets,
have been the subject of academic papers, online fan worship and popular
guidebooks. More to the point, Xena, in its second season, has surpassed the
once-lofty Baywatch as the No. 1 syndicated action series on television.

   Nelson kept finding references to the shows on the Internet, which isn't hard
since, by his count, there are 850 Web sites devoted to Xena alone (a new book
on Xena suggests the figure may be much higher, with a key word search
registering 7,200 Xena references). Prompted by what he read online, Nelson
decided to take a closer look.

   'Lately they've been doing Kierkegaard,' he said, referring to Soren
Kierkegaard, a melancholy 19th century Danish philosopher considered the founder
of existentialism. To support that claim, Nelson noted a Xena episode titled
Maternal Instincts, which posed the question under what conditions would it be
appropriate to sacrifice one's child, a subject Kierkegaard explored in one of
his books.

   His growing interest in the show led him to write a story titled Cry Murder:
The Politics and Ethics of Homicide in Xena: Warrior Princess for the February
edition of Whoosh!, an online fan magazine.

   Nelson is far from the only unlikely Xena enthusiast. Claudia Stubbs, a
Jacksonville loan processor, has become such a Xena devotee that she attended a
fan convention in Valley Forge, Pa., last summer. 'My family thinks I'm nuts,'
she said.

   Academic admirers Robert Weisbrot, who teaches American history at Maine's
Colby College, has written two paperbacks just published by Doubleday: Hercules:
The Legendary Journeys -- The Official Companion and Xena: Warrior Princess --
The Official Guide to the Xenaverse.

   In a telephone interview, he said he has purposely taken a low-key approach
to publicizing his involvement with the books because of apprehension that his
academic colleagues would ridicule him. But his unbounded enthusiasm for the
shows convinced him both to write the books and to talk about them, he said.

   'In academe, this will be seen as a disgrace,' he said. 'But writing these
books is more important to me than my career. Frankly, I welcome any opportunity
to proselytize on behalf of these shows . . . I want to convey how exciting and
rewarding I find them.'

   Even Leslie Perkins, who teaches Latin and Greek and Roman mythology at St.
Johns Country Day School, admits to a sneaking affection for Hercules, though
most of her colleagues in the classics disagree.

   She said the shows are 'very uneven, but more than a few are excellent.'

   By making the world of ancient mythology accessible and entertaining,
Hercules and Xena help create and deepen interest in the culture of ancient
Greece, Perkins said.

   Purists who complain that the show takes liberties with the mythological
Hercules are ignoring the fact that 'the Hercules myth has been treated pretty
freely by everybody,' she added.  Gods on film

   Among those who treated the mythological Hercules freely were Italian
filmmakers of the 1950s, who created a whole swords-and-sandals genre with a
series of films starring musclemen as ancient heroes. The prototype was Steve
Reeves, a former Mr. Universe whose acting skills were so limited that his voice
was dubbed for American release even though he grew up in Montana.

   When, in 1994, Universal Television included four Hercules movies in a wheel
of syndicated made-for-TV movies, it was Reeves' muscle-bound Hercules and
Arnold Schwarzenegger's equally brutish Conan the Barbarian that were fresh in
viewers minds.

   But the producers chosen to spearhead the project, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert,
had a track record that suggested a different sort of Hercules might be

   Having met as student filmmakers at Michigan State University, Raimi and
Tapert had proceeded to collaborate on a series of low-budget horror movies,
which made up for their lack of funds with a sly, hip, post-modern sensibility.
Among their credits were The Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, Darkman and two
better-than-you-would expect Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, Hard Target and Time
Cop. They were also involved in the dark, subversive but short-lived CBS series
American Gothic.

   Their four two-hour Hercules offerings for the 1994-95 TV season were so well
received that a fifth was added. Then, for the 1995-96 TV season, Hercules
became a one-hour syndicated weekly series.

   Kevin Sorbo, an American actor best known for appearing in Diet Coke ads, was
cast as Hercules, half-mortal, half-god. Anthony Quinn played his father, the
god Zeus. Australian actor Michael Hurst, who appeared as Hercules' friend
Iolaus in a couple of the movies, became a regular in the first full season,
playing Hercules' constant companion.

   Because both Hercules and Xena are filmed in New Zealand, the majority of the
supporting roles are filled by Australians and New Zealanders.

   The character of Xena, who unlike Hercules is not found in Greek mythology,
was introduced in a three-story arc at the end of the 1995-96 season of

   After several actresses, including Touched by an Angel's Roma Downey, who had
appeared as the Amazon queen in the telemovie Hercules and the Amazon Women,
passed on the role of Xena, Lucy Lawless, a towering former Miss New Zealand,
won the part. Lawless had appeared as the fiercest of the female warriors in
Hercules and the Amazon Women.

   The initial plan was to kill Xena off in her third episode. But the
producers, who were looking for a series to package with Hercules, had a change
of heart. They let Xena live to head her own series in the 1996-97 season, where
she was joined by American actress Renee O'Connor, who plays her sidekick,

   Both shows feature a number of semi-regulars playing such characters as the
god Ares, Hercules half-brother, and Callisto, Xena's sensual, psychotic
nemesis. The characters, including Hercules and Xena, frequently move from one
show to the other.  Success stories

   Theories for the success of the two shows abound.

   Weisbrot cites the 'astoundingly successful intermarriage between ancient
Greece and '90s California.' He also calls Xena, the female warrior who began as
a brutal conqueror, then was converted by Hercules' example to becoming a
wandering hero, 'the most interesting, complex, multi-layered female character
ever seen on TV.'

   Stubbs said she was attracted to Xena's 'journey of redemption,' the way the
character began as a seemingly irredeemable killer only to be drawn away from
the dark side and toward good. And in addition to being physically powerful,
she's TV's smartest female protagonist, Stubbs said.

   Xena also has reportedly drawn a cult following among lesbians, who interpret
the close relationship between Xena and her sidekick, Gabrielle, as sexual.
It's a hotly debated topic on the Internet, and Whoosh! includes a note on 'The
Sapphic Subtext' that quotes an interview with star Lucy Lawless in which she
said 'we are aware of and not afraid of' this perceived lesbian subtext.

   'I've heard that, but I don't agree with that,' Stubbs said. 'I see their
relationship as more sisterly.'

   Robert Thompson, a professor of television at Syracuse University, said he
has been amazed by the popularity of the shows.

   He cites the 'Baywatch factor' of 'fabulous looking bodies in exotic
settings' as one of the initial aspects of the show that attracted viewers.

   Another factor helping the shows, Thompson said, is 'an iconography that has
been rediscovered by pop culture.' Video and computer games featuring warriors
armed with swords and shields embarking on heroic quests are very popular.
Hercules and Xena each bears a superficial resemblance to these games, with the
hero in each on a restless quest to protect innocence from evil (the subtitle of
Hercules is The Legendary Journeys).

   The shows also may have built an audience just by breaking fresh ground at a
time when too many series seemed copies of previous successful series, Thompson

   And then there is the cult status, the sense viewers have that they've
stumbled onto something no one else knows about, that while everyone around them
dismisses Hercules and Xena as mindless TV filler, they've recognized that the
shows are actually really good. 'There are millions and millions of people who
think they are the only ones watching,' Thompson said.

   None of which would matter, he admitted, if it weren't for the fact that 'for
all of their goofiness, these are really pretty good shows.'

   'They are full of unexpected, new-to-television ideas,' Nelson said. '. . .
There's a real post-modern sensibility at work there. They are camp, above the
modern culture, full of whimsy. It's television right on the cutting edge.'

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