A Heroic Television Endeavor Ends
After five telemovies, six seasons of television episodes, two spinoffs, and an animated musical video, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys bowed out quietly this week. Though the show still attracted good ratings, the cast and crew had had enough; when star Kevin Sorbo announced plans to return to the U.S. after several years of living and shooting in New Zealand, the production folded gracefully, leaving the character alive and available for guest appearances or possible future movies.
Unlike ultra-cool spinoff Xena: Warrior Princess, beloved of the desirable teen male action demographic as well as feminists everywhere, it has never been fashionable to declare oneself a rabid fan of Hercules. Super-hunk Sorbo's a little too pretty for guys to worship yet a little too macho for liberated women to swoom over, and Greek gods are a tad out of fashion. While Xena rocketed to ratings superstardom in its early seasons, becoming the most successful syndicated series for many weeks, Hercules trekked along steadily, earning respect and affection if not the rabid passion of its successor.
And now that it's gone, I feel compelled to confess: for the great majority of weeks of their dual runs, I have liked Hercules better than Xena.
Oh, I know this is a terrible thing for a woman like myself to admit. And intellectually I don't want to believe it's so. Xena is unique, practically the only female character in the history of television to demonstrate complete self-possession without turning into a caricature. She's brilliant, she's a cunning warrior and also a talented diplomat, she's as strong as the gods, she has high values and morals, she's a devoted friend. She has a dark side, but she knows how to keep it in check.
Hercules never seemed quite as smart as Xena, he gets his super-human strength from divine pedigree rather than workouts, and his diplomatic skills are often predicated on his ability to kick the butts of the negotiators. He is indeed a devoted friend, having risked death numerous times to save his sidekick Iolaus, but his dark side seems a bit shallow; despite alienation from his divine father and abuse by his wicked stepmother Hera, his demons remain close to the surface, easily controlled. His only real temptations have been the image of his dead wife and the chance to overthrow the gods, yet it's never taken more than an hour for him to remember where his loyalties lie.
This is not the tortured figure of Greek mythology, nor even the troubled boy of Disney cartoons. In many ways, Hercules is a cardboard cliche hero, always doing the right thing, struggling only with the grandest of enticements. On The Legendary Journeys, he acquired all the best features (and the finest deeds) of Theseus, Perseus, Odysseus...even Jason, the childhood friend who became his stepfather. And he didn't get any of their curses or comeuppances. All in all, it's a pretty darned good existence.
So what's the appeal of Hercules? Well, for one thing - and this should never be discounted - it's hilarious. Unlike Xena, which is serious more often than not, Hercules sticks mainly to lighthearted stories, and even the heavier ones are laced with humor. The series is fearlessly anachronistic, with references to web sites (while visiting a giant black widow) and Post-It Notes (OK, so these are Post-It Rocks). Plus it's full of traditional sources of humor like babies peeing in people's faces and classical comedy such as men dressing as women for the sake of romance.
There are revisions of fables old ("Beanstalks and Bad Eggs," from Jack and the Beanstalk) and new ("Porkules," from Babe). Jokes cover everything from mistranslations of foreign languages - perpetual prankster Autolycus has a particular knack for getting in trouble with the ladies this way - to the improbable situations in which the hero finds himself, holding up caves during earthquakes and turning down propositions from stunning femmes fatales. Sorbo has a gift for keeping a straight face without looking stupid, even when purple dinosaurs are on the loose or a vengeful god has made his friends' clothes vanish.
Because of its postmodern sensibility, Hercules could satirize its own genre as well as spoofing others. Writers who were surely aware that slash fans would look for erotic undertones between Hercules and Iolaus threw in plenty of gratuitous gifts. "How long have you two been together?" asks a disappointed woman, witnessing a "very firm" handshake between the two men.
The writers also went for out-and-out camp in episodes like "Footloose and Fancy Free," which not only parodied the torrid teen drama Footloose but allowed Hercules to share a romantic clinch with The Widow Twanke...played by Michael Hurst, better known as Iolaus. "Pretend I am your partner!" exhorts the Widow, while Hercules, with only a suggestion of discomfort, whirls "her" around the room.
Because he almost always plays the straight man - except when he's playing his own evil alternate universe twin with a beard like Spock's - it's easy to overlook just how skilled a comedian Sorbo really is. Perfect subtlety is necessary on the clunker puns Hercules utters, like "I don't remember a field trip" when he wakes in a field where a witch has deposited him. But even Sorbo can't compete with Bruce Campbell's Autolycus, whose appearances without exception enlivened the series and who could say with believable sorrow that all he had left of his true love was one shiny memory...meaning the large jewel he stole from her husband.
Sorbo has always gotten most of the show's press, yet he did nearly all his best work in the "Also Starring Michael Hurst" episodes. It should be pointed out that Xena fooled around with Iolaus before Hercules, thus making him integral to both shows. Because he was all-mortal, Iolaus could have experiences which Hercules could not. For one thing, he could die - which he did in "Faith," triggering the very powerful arc that carried through the fifth season, in which Hercules learned the real value of his friend by his absence.
Because he was not the son of a god, Iolaus occasionally had a better sense of how to deal with the pesky Olympians. While Hercules swore and stammered at his obnoxious half-brother, god of war Ares, his friend thought of practical ways to combat the king of combat. When newly minted goddess Callisto set out to change history by killing Hercules' mother before the hero's birth, Iolaus used his own resources to save his friend.
It was Iolaus, not Hercules, who was drawn to the scene of the divine birth in "A Star To Guide Them." It took many years before Iolaus considered himself a hero in his own right, having grown up a thief in the early Young Hercules episodes, but there's no question even in the eyes of the Archangel Michael that that's precisely what he is.
I've made no secret of the fact that I think the most attractive man in Herc's universe is his bad boy brother Ares, who dresses in leather and shows off his pecs while other people do his dirty work. I'm also quite fond of his alternate universe twin, Ares, god of love, who dresses like a refugee from Saturday Night Fever and blows red plastic kisses. Ares has no sense of humor whatsoever, other than enjoying extremely morbid jokes, so it's a good thing he cuts such a fine figure just sitting and brooding.
As played by Kevin Smith, the character brings an edgy, psychotic kind of power into all his scenes...because he is attractive, and knows it, and expects both Hercules and Xena to respond to his sheer magnetism. His sidekicks Strife and Damos and Discord have all been buffoonish by comparison, while the sorry fools who follow him rarely lasted a full episode. Ares really thrived on Xena because he could flirt with her in a way he couldn't manage with his own half-brother, but even here the writers weren't afraid of a little kinky slash subtext, jokes about what one man was going to do to the other when he got him down.
Comic con-man Salmoneus pretty much disappeared from the series as Iolaus' role grew, popping up occasionally for hysterical schemes like the art show in which he gets Hercules to pose for Picassus (who paints a cubist image with an eye at the center), Da Vincus (who puts Hercules' face on the Mona Lisa's body), Warholius (Hercules a la Jacqueline Kennedy), and Xerox (a black and white copy of Da Vincus' painting). As the actor least likely to pull off cross-dressing, Rob Trebor was of course required to do just that, causing a wealthy lord to fall passionately in love with his feminine side, "Salmonella."
An Old-Fashioned Liberal Butt-Kicker
Hercules was put on trial more than once for his creeping do-goodism. In one episode a magistrate charged him with sedition and failing to obey the gods, arguing that when people try to be heroes, they abandon their families, disregard the law, and get themselves killed. The role model escaped when everyone in the room stood and said, "I am Hercules!" Later on it was suggested that Hercules created false crises as an excuse to be a savior...something we have seen his divine siblings do repeatedly, but no one accuses them of witchcraft.
Hercules has a good old-fashioned work ethic, yet he also believes that the state has charitable obligations in the absence of generous gods. He opposes prejudice based on race, religion, nationality, gender, or economic status, though he appears to have an aristocratic caste system in which legitimate heirs may inherit thrones while upstart warlords have to be overthrown. Few of his friends have been despots, but many were kings; in one of those weird Oedipal twists, his youthful best friend Jason, who became King of Corinth, later married Hercules' mother. Since Hercules in fact wanted to kill his father Zeus for most of his life - for altruistic reasons, mind you - it felt more than a little weird.
The series has had its share of spectacular special effects, like the tunnel between the worlds where Hercules met and fought his own evil twin, and like the giant chicken into which Discord was transformed in "One Fowl Day." However, Hercules is more likely to be remembered for its numerous fight scenes - sometimes seven or eight in an episode. The peace-loving hero was called to battle again and again, and always responded...with relish.
Does the son of Zeus have an underlying need to prove his manhood? Or is he simply a proponent of mutual deterrence? Xena fights nearly as often as Hercules, with a lot more relish in most cases. The violence on Hercules is almost purposefully cartoonish; it's conceivable that a woman could learn to use a sword or sais like Xena or Gabrielle, but it is not conceivable that a man could learn to club a giant the way Hercules does. The Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote come closer to resembling Hercules and his foes than any living kickboxers I've seen. And this is one case where congressional naysayers can't blame contemporary values for all the kicking; the original Hercules myths were a lot more violent. In fact, the original Hercules myths were a lot smuttier, less fun, and generally less heroic than Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.
This Hercules possessed a strength the world had never seen, a strength surpassed only by the power of his heart...so the opening voice-over has been telling us all these years. And in a rare case of a show living up to its own hype, it's been true. For all the displays of fighting technique, the series has been almost heavy-handed about messages against violence. In fact, many episodes have After-School Special sorts of messages: stand up for your beliefs even if they're unpopular, don't use cheap pranks to make friends, don't let other people tell you how to dress. The "hero's heart" (title of an episode in which Herc convinces Iolaus that it's the heart, not the muscles, that make a man) has always been right where it belongs.
I'm going to stop being ashamed I have a crush on Kevin Sorbo. I'm going to stop pretending I don't find evildoers like Ares attractive. I'm not going to apologize for liking Amazons in outrageous sexy clothes, nor for having fun with the idea that two hot Greek men might have indulged in what was once referred to as "the vice of the Greeks."
I'm going to see if I can find the episode where Hercules cleans out the stables.