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Xena Allure Makes Her Legend In His Own Mind

San Diego Union Tribune
15 October 1996

Transcribed by Erin

Venus, according to classic mythology, "sprang from the froth of the sea" and so impressed the immortals with her beauty that they made her goddess of love.

Xena, according to studio press releases, was "initially conceived as an evil figure" in one of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" but so impressed the viewing public that they made her a warrior princess headed for television immortality.

It takes time for a new folk hero to solidify in the mass mind, but Xena is the most likely new candidate since Mr. Spock and Darth Vader. She's a hero approaching Hercules' own Olympian proportions.

"Xena: Warrior Princess," being a syndicated TV show rather than a network program, shows up all over the TV log, on Channel 69 in San Diego and Channel 5 in Los Angeles. Could be this floating schedule exposed her to a wider audience than a fixed weekly spot. Maybe the lurid, comic strip title snagged a few more viewers. Whatever, Xena
captured enough fans to position herself on the 212 U.S. stations in the new season for a run at the syndicated champs, like "Bay Watch."

I stumbled across Xena last season, while looking for something mindless to accompany Saturday night dinner. Right away I got hooked and, all things being equal, there are few current television shows I prefer now more than this pungent stew of Classic Comics mythology, kung fu flicks, computer tricks, science fiction, fairy tales, arcade games, cheesecake, slapstick, campy romp and buddy epic that all blends so smoothly together.

What's the big attraction? Here's my guess, roughly in order of importance:

HEROISM-- Though not perfect, Xena manages to nurture fairness and virtue in a world where the distinctions are slippery. She is a mortal made special by her purity of purpose yet kept interesting by the flaws she must control.

ATMOSPHERE-- The show, shot in New Zealand, simply drips gorgeous, lush, unspoiled scenery, quite acceptable as an ancient world where elaborate wonders are commonplace. The large and vivid crowds, the complex special effects, the rich textures of the decor, the vast outdoor panoramas and even the broad overacting of the supporting players all contribute to an accumulated sense of importance.

ATTITUDE-- A gee-whiz sense of wonder balances precisely with casual hangout humor to solve deftly the problem of access between eras. The producers simply ignore the inconsistencies. Of course knowing exactly how much modern slang will work -- "you guys" and "she's starting to bug me" are OK but "cool dudes" would not be heard -- is part of the formula. The rest is a genial shrug that links classic resonance and contemporary comfort into a shared conspiracy simply to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story.

CASTING-- Maybe this should rate higher, because Lucy Lawless is *really* terrific, a tall brunette with the look of eagles in her icy blue eyes and the voluptuous figure well-displayed in comic-book tradition. Her presence is commanding and her athleticism is formidable, but her real secret is the intelligent sensitivity she brings to her acting. While Xena certainly is what the Irish call "a fine broth of a girl," careful study reveals the sophistication of Lawless' technique.

STORIES-- There is no richer, deeper supply of tales than the mythology of ancient Greece. But the makers of "Xena" don't limit themselves to the foibles of Olympus. In a recent episode, the giant Goliath wanders through from the Old Testament. And some of these standard Greek icons turn up in surprising contexts, like Bacchus as a bad guy. By remaining vague about the shows dates (roughly 1000 B.C.) and background (something about a wronged girl who learns martial arts to seek revenge), the producers provide themselves limitless opportunities for borrowing legends to retool.

Many of these elements are present in Xena's parent show, "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys." Kevin Sorbo, a definite hunk with an easy, unforced charm, has grown into the lead role despite being less beefy than one might expect from the strongest man in the world. He gets the same great scenery, the same natural cool and the same rigid code of ethics as Xena, plus they're both stuck with the same silly kung fu stuff.

But Hercules is coated with centuries of stereotyping. Even audiences who can't name one of his 12 labors still know that he was gifted beyond most mortals and that he retired more or less undefeated. Not so Xena, who totes no more baggage than any other attractive, assertive young woman surviving in a traditionally masculine business.

They both handle the action with a hero's aplomb but she gleams with the added glow of the unexpected, a fictional hero both resourceful and efficient who also happens to be a major babe.

After a good launch in 1994, Hercules' people seem to be going dry. The first two offerings of the new season were a standard two-rivals-against-the-real-baddies plot with some menace borrowed from Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic, "Dune," and a muddled tale about Daedalus, bummed at losing his son Icarus in the world's first plane crash, turning out weapons of mass destruction.

The villains are mere cartoons, the plots are clumsy (a female scribe does a tiresome enterprising reporter bit) and Sorbo seems bemused to find himself, as the greatest hero in history, helping jolly peasants with their yardwork.

No such drift with Xena, though her season premiere does labor through enough alternate universe gibberish to stir interest aboard the starship Enterprise.

There's a temptation to see these two series as interchangeable. But Xena is pulling away in the subtlety stakes, thanks to the little mysteries that surround her past and her future.

Take the sidekicks, for example. Each hero has a principal pal -- a shorter, plainer, funnier and less perfect version of themselves -- but Xena's Gabrielle is far more interesting than Hercules' Iolaus.

There was an Iolaus in the Hercules myths, a sort of assistant hero who was a big help during the Herculean labors. According to Plutarch, one of the best sources for the times, Iolaus inspired shrines "where lovers used to go and bind themselves by the most solemn oaths of fidelity, considering the place as sacred to love and friendship."

Now that's a bit racy for a popular television action series, so Sorbo and Michael Hurst (as Iolaus) do a lot of guy stuff to compensate.

But Xena and Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) are another matter. When they cuddle, the air is charged with romance. And, believe me, the Internet is buzzing.

Unless you're really obsessed with metaphors, both shows are, finally, just well-crafted escapist nonsense. But Hercules, who already has had his centuries of fame, probably will fade away soon (along with the inevitable imitations now turning up) while Xena may turn out to have surprising legs, if you'll pardon the expression.

Other than the obvious opportunity for women to identify with a hero as assertive, confident, daring and crafty as any man, the creators of Xena also offer a vivid central character at home in a timeless universe and just waiting for an entire history of her own.

It isn't often that we can watch the birth of a new legend.


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