Thursday, March 5, 1998
Florida Times Union

Xena: Cult princess
Looking like they just stepped out of ancient mythology, a
pair of TV superheroes have muscled their way into pop

By Charlie Patton
Times-Union television writer

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 expected.''

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

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 forthcoming.

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 Hercules.

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, Gabrielle.

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

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 suggested.

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

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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