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Forget 'Baywatch': The Action's With 'Hercules,' 'Xena'

Television: The series put the accent on heroic fights, legendary characters, some eye candy and a dose of humor. Bad guys rarely die, and one of the good guys is a woman.

February 17, 1996|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The ancient myths we all learned in junior high--stories of Cyclops, sirens, satyrs, ambrosia and cruel, mischievous gods named Hera and the Gorgones--have become more popular than all the cleavage and beach rescues David Hasselhoff has to offer.

"Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and its spinoff, "Xena: Warrior Princess," have become two of the most popular hourlong dramas in the world of television syndication, out-rating "Baywatch" by a wide margin this season and quite often beating even the "Star Trek" incarnation, "Deep Space Nine."

"There is nothing like it on TV in terms of action and special effects. We pack more into every episode than any other show," said Kevin Sorbo, who stars as Hercules, explaining the appeal of the two series. "We're not 'ER.' We don't try to be based in reality. But we're two hours of 'make the popcorn and escape from life's bumps and worries for a while.' "

The shows were created and are produced by Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi, who have collaborated on such feature films as "Evil Dead" and "Darkman" and created the now-defunct Fox series "Mantis." They say it is the campy sense of humor, the wacky Hong Kong-style action and the appealing heroes fighting off evil gods and warlords in the lushly primitive time before Christ that have given them their first television hits.

"When we first started 'Hercules' way back when [1993], Sam and I remarked that our favorite shows were the old Captain Kirk 'Star Trek' episodes," Tapert explained. "They were fun and a little sexy and had Kirk in these weird fights, and we tried to deliver that same kind of entertainment value. It is dumb action, maybe, but it is different than anything else on television. More like small feature films each week."

But they were careful not to replicate the old black-and-white "Hercules" movies that featured a grim and tortured hero embarked on his humorless labors of superhuman strength. Instead, they opted for a more modern, winking, good-guy Hercules, dressed more like Robin Hood, who always saves the day with as little malice as possible.

"The old Hercules myths would have made for bad television because he killed a lot of people," Tapert said.

"So we decided the best way to go was to find a Joe Montana type, with no togas and no Parthenons and all that, someone not so huge and stilted as that old movie guy, someone you would always like to have over to your house. He couldn't be malicious or vindictive, because then he isn't your hero. That makes it easier for people to tune in, and we get a lot of fan mail from parents saying, 'It's great to have a hero that my kids can root for who is not an athlete, but someone who actually does good in the world.' "

So Hercules fights monsters and gods, helps Jason and the Argonauts recapture the stolen golden fleece, all in the good-looking and athletic but far from Herculean body of the long-haired Sorbo, who throughout jokes and laughs and pokes fun at himself.

"In 34 episodes or so, I think I've only killed three people, and that was by accident," Sorbo said. "The fight scenes are wild and well-choreographed, but they're always done with a wink in Herc's eye. And I think that's worked.

"Initially we expected the audience to be boys 12 to 17, but it's turned out to be much broader than that. The ads are everything from McDonald's to BMWs."

Women seem to enjoy the spinoff, "Xena," even more. The title character is troubled, flawed, even melancholic; her foes are all-too-human assassins, thieves and tyrants. Still, as played by the statuesque Lucy Lawless, she is one hell of a fighting machine with her flipping, flailing legs and sliver breastplate. She kills her foes far more often than Hercules does.

"No one had done a female superhero since 'Wonder Woman,' and a lot of stations were really wary at first because they just didn't think women action heroes were big sellers," Tapert said. "But what we have found is that there is a certain element of society that really likes to see women in that role. Even 'American Gladiators,' with those muscle-bound women, is still on the air."

"I love playing Xena because she is not little Miss Perfect, not solely good," said Lawless, a New Zealander and mother of a 7-year-old daughter.

"In fact, Xena's life prior to where we are in the series had been quite malevolent, and she's looking not exactly to redeem herself, but for a more worthy path. She's far from a moral character, but she's an individual who unwittingly finds herself a hero. And as this unapologetic, unself-conscious woman, she appeals to young women in a big way. And of course there are a lot of 50-year-old men who are in love with her."

Oh yeah, that. Neither of these shows will ever match the bathing suits and bare chests of "Baywatch," but Lawless' breasts, blue eyes and bared arms and legs aren't exactly easy to miss. And Sorbo admitted that his friends often tease him that he's playing Hercules, not in the land of myth but "in the land of cleavage."

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