Hercules: The Legendary Journeys

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Hercules: The Legendary Journeys

Initially starting out in 1993 as a made-for-TV movie, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys became a syndicated television series in the 1995-96 television season. Starring Kevin Sorbo as the half-god Hercules, the series combined action, special effects, and camp to create one of the most popular syndicated shows of the 1990s, rivaling the Star Trek franchise and Baywatch for ratings. In fact, the show spawned a number of spin-offs and imitators.

The show's executive producers, Sam Raimi (the writer and director of cult favorite movie The Evil Dead) and Ron Tapert, combined unlikely elements to make the show a success. The show deviated from previous incarnations of the Greek hero played by such musclemen as Steve Reeves and Lou Ferrigno. Sorbo, while lean and muscular, was not just a muscle bound hero. Though he usually beat up villains and groups of bad guys in highly choreographed and often farcical fights, he was chiefly portrayed as a hero with heart. The show's title narration told the story: It was a time when the gods were cruel and played with mortals. Hercules, the son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, stood up for the common man against his family, the gods.

But just portraying Hercules as champion of the people didn't account for the show's popularity. Many reviewers gave credit to the fact that the show used pop culture references and a healthy dose of camp to entertain a broad spectrum of the television audience. For instance, the show didn't care about historical or mythological accuracy. It went instead for hipness and, at times, silliness. In one episode titled "Porkules," Hercules was transformed into a super-strong pig. Ares, the god of war, was always dressed in leather as was the goddess Discord. Their choice of attire was the source of many double entendres about their possibly kinky preferences. Apollo, the sun god, was portrayed as riding a type of golden snowboard and talking like a late-twentieth-century adolescent.

The show offered plenty of action. Almost every episode featured Hercules and Iolaus, or one of the other heroes, battling a group of armed men. These scenes feature Hercules and his cohorts butting heads, throwing men through the air, doing flips, and throwing old fashioned punches. While violent, most shows had no deaths. Occasionally though, a battle scene was just that, a battle with fatalities. Hercules also faced off against special effects monsters, such as Echidna.

The show also displayed wit and imagination. The producers did a post-modern episode that featured the cast looking for Kevin Sorbo, the actor. Another episode was a retelling of the movie Some Like It Hot. The producers and writers of the show weren't afraid to take chances.

Besides Hercules, the show had a cast of regular characters. Hercules's constant sidekick throughout the first five seasons was Iolaus, played by Michael Hurt. Ares, played by Kevin Smith; Autolycus, the King of Thieves, played by Bruce Campbell; and Salmoneus, played by Robert Trebor, were also regulars. On some occasions, the show never even featured Hercules but focused on the supporting characters.

One of the characters to appear on the series was Xena, Warrior Princess. Xena's character was spun off into its own series, and actually became more popular than Hercules. The two shared supporting casts and occasionally crossed over from one show to the other. The characters were also the co-stars of an animated movie. A second spin-off of the show was Young Hercules, a show broadcast on Saturday mornings on the Fox network. The show featured the adventures of the juvenile Hercules and Iolaus.

After Hercules scored big in the ratings, other companies brought out mythic figures to try to cash in on the show's success. However, such shows as Sinbad and Tarzan didn't have the popular appeal of Hercules. Besides television, Hercules and Xena found a large home on the Internet with many fan pages devoted to both shows. Computer games and multi-player on-line games featured the characters as well.

—P. Andrew Miller

Further Reading:

Freeman, Michael. "Mything in Action." MEDIAWEEK. April 29, 1996.

Gliatto, Tom, and Kirsten Warner. "Sorbo the Greek: As TV's New Hercules, Minnesota's Kevin Sorbo Gives the Mythic Muscleman a Sensitive Spin." People Weekly. July 3, 1995.