Xena: Warrior Princess 4.19 and 4.20

And speaking of “who needs the extra work,” I confess that apart from occasional giggles when Joxer’s luck stays delightfully bad, and from occasional satisfaction with the program’s remarkably good fight scenes, our kid has really been ready for Xena to wrap up, and honestly, four seasons of this show was good for us. Happily, episode nineteen was another mostly comedic entry, and a chance to bid farewell to Autolycus and Joxer, and episode twenty was a chance to say goodbye to two other recurring players, who didn’t make it out of the narrative alive: Ephiny and Pompey. We enjoyed the laughs in the first one – it’s a murder mystery – and the brawls in the second one, but really, the enthusiasm isn’t there. Probably should’ve stopped with the murder mystery, honestly.

Actually, the original plan had been to watch the next one, which is what the season had been building towards with Xena’s flashforwards of hers and Gabrielle’s grisly deaths. Even knowing that there would be some supernatural magic early in year five to restore them, however, it felt a little heavy, and the reviews I read suggest I’m right to table it. I like this show when it’s lighthearted and fun, with goofy supernatural antagonists and a playful spirit. So we’ll leave it there, and move on to other things.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.17 – The Play’s the Thing

Sadly, this seems to be the last of the comedy episodes of Xena that we’ll be looking at for the blog, as the next two appear to be at least semi-serious and I’ve decided against going on to season five. This one prompted a mid-show pause while we explained the plot of The Producers to our son, as Gabrielle finds herself and her dire scroll, “A Message of Peace,” targeted by a Max Bialystock-esque impresario. That helped him know where this one was going – sadly, the climax is actually just another fight scene instead of something really creative – but his favorite gags were Joxer trying to hang theater posters and bashing his thumb with a hammer.

My favorite gags, in order, were the impresario giving a very, very tiny scroll to potential clients because business cards hadn’t been invented yet, Sophocles’s opening-night competition turning out to be the ancient Greek version of a Ziegfeld Follies, and two of the actresses in this mess thanking our heroines thusly: “The two of you made me realize something deep down inside myself that I guess I always knew but I didn’t dare admit. I’m a thespian.” Curtain.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.12 – If the Shoe Fits…

So I was saying that comedy Xena is a million, billion times better than angsty Xena. Here’s more wonderfully fun evidence. This time out, it’s a hilariously fractured fairy tale. While escorting a very ugly warlord to whatever local assizes is in charge of justice in this land, Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer pick up a runaway seven year-old who doesn’t like her evil stepmother and has found refuge with Aphrodite, who claims to be the little girl’s fairy godsmother. So now they have two charges in tow and pass the time telling the kid some slightly off-kilter versions of Cinderella.

This is one of the goofiest hours of anything we’ve watched, and we all chuckled throughout. The story is a complete scream, with ridiculous costumes and accents, gender-flipping depending on who’s doing the telling, three incredibly ugly men becoming even more incredibly ugly stepsisters, and Ted Raimi and his remarkably obvious double doing some kind of Saturday Night Fever-Vogue dance at the ball with some anachronistic sound effects.

So yes, I enjoyed this one tremendously. I liked it even before they started storytelling, because it harkens back to season two’s triumphant “A Day in the Life” with Xena thoughtlessly destroying Gabrielle’s things and taking her for granted and putting them in a bad mood. This time out, Xena can’t find a rope to tie up and gag the warlord, and Gabrielle’s having a shower, so the warrior princess just takes Gabrielle’s green top and shreds it for binding.

I don’t know why I enjoy it so much when these two forget how much they love each other and get petty, but I really do. Later on, Gabrielle uses her story to punctuate that somebody uses this casual theft as a defense mechanism to avoid talking about intimacy, which is wonderful. Later still, the warlords, now stepbrothers, are made to say “Check out his social skills!” which is even more wonderful. It’s a fine, fine hour of TV. And they all lived happily ever after.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.10 – The Key to the Kingdom

Comedy Xena is a million, billion times better than angsty Xena. This was completely wonderful. This time, Autolycus teams up with Joxer and Meg the Barmaid to heist a fabled key that will point the way to an equally fabled treasure. But Meg double-crosses everybody for quite surprising reasons. All is forgiven, but nobody gets what they want in this beautiful farce. Poor Joxer. It’s been three years and the poor mook still hasn’t found a single fighting move that works a drop.

We all loved this to pieces. It was ridiculous and incredibly funny. Renee O’Connor isn’t in this one; I guess she had the week off. And our kid, who just about lost his mind laughing when our inept heroic trio decide they need to feed a baby “strong cheese and pickles,” is proving he’s becoming a very quick study in the rules of television. Ten seconds into the story and guards are moving a great big ceramic pig – big enough for someone to hide inside – into a room full of treasure. “Ah, a King of Thieves episode,” he observed.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.9 – Past Imperfect

This morning’s episode was pretty strange from a production standpoint. It introduces Catherine Boniface, who we saw playing a different character in a season three story, as Satrina, a face from Xena’s past who has reinvented herself as a master villain. She is totally set up as a new recurring menace – probably filling the hole in the show left by Callisto – and even makes a traditional teevee bad guy getaway, but she’s never seen again after this. I guess the producers decided that she didn’t work and decided against using her again.

Using a face from the past means they go back to the flashbacks again. I swear I didn’t intend for this to happen, but by skipping around the way we have, it’s almost looked like Xena’s old boyfriend, the warlord Borias, has been about as important a recurring player as Ares or Caesar. Our son said he really enjoyed this episode’s fight scenes, but the flashbacks confused him. I can’t imagine it was really as confusing as he made out; he was probably just not paying close attention.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.6 – A Tale of Two Muses

I really thought our son would have enjoyed tonight’s silly episode more than he did. For a while, he seemed to be liking it. Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus get together to bring a little Footloose to a town of religious extremists who have banned dancing. The King of Thieves is only in this under protest until he learns that the scheme is to “humiliate this horse’s ass” of a town magistrate. I guess you could make the argument that the humiliation is left to our imagination, and so we never really get the chance to enjoy his comeuppance, but the real tragedy for the kid is that there was far too much music and dancing. His loss; there’s a dance scene in the middle of the story set to a terrific tune called “Let the Spirit Move Me” sung by Gillian Iliana Waters that the grownups really enjoyed.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.5 – A Good Day

Up until the final scenes, our son was really enjoying this one, which is nice, because he certainly didn’t enjoy the previous three. It ends with a long, long meditation on the horrors of war – there’s slow motion and “noooooooooooo” and a quite unsurprising death among the guest stars – and then Xena sings at another funeral. To be fair, I was enjoying this one quite a lot until the slo-mo myself, but the kid’s precise criticism after five minutes of the show turning into a tear-jerker nails it best. “I really don’t like it when it turns into a sad relationship broken drama.”

Anyway, it’s a heck of a good plot and a very, very good production. Caesar and Pompey have brought the Roman civil war to Greece, and while Pompey’s forces are larger, Karl Urban’s Caesar inspires far greater loyalty and morale in his men, plus he’s a much better battlefield tactician. Xena schemes to assure a little mutually-assured destruction so what’s left of their forces will return to Rome and leave these hills and villages alone.

Pulling this off required probably the largest collection of costumed, combat-ready extras we’ve seen in this series, augmented by some of those CGI-enhanced crowd scenes that were a lot harder to spot in the 1990s than they are today. But the brawling and the scope is very, very impressive: much higher budgeted weekly TV series rarely pull off anything this spectacular. To be fair, the effect was slightly spoiled tonight, because afterward, Marie and I watched the first half of Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 epic Kagemusha, which has one of the largest collections of costumed, combat-ready extras I’ve seen in anything, period. But Xena nevertheless deserves a lot of praise for what it could accomplish with so much less money, and the fight scenes really are golden.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.3 – A Family Affair

We’d crossed our fingers that Gabrielle had survived the end of season three, and she did, but we also crossed our fingers that Hope died, and not only did she live, she gave birth to a big monster covered with spikes. There’s honestly not a lot to this story; Xena and Joxer head back to Gabrielle’s hometown, hoping that she somehow survived and made her way there. She did, but so did Hope, who got there first and is pretending to be Gabrielle, and there’s a monster in a cave that comes out at night to eat people.

This is definitely a show that blew all its budget on the location shoot and wire-fu of the two-part opening and is down to a small cast and very familiar sets for this one. We’re watching fewer than half the episodes and I swear we’ve seen that bridge at least twice before. The beast is quite well-designed and the animatronic face is excellent, but the spikes are comically rubber and bouncy in an Ultraman monster way. It ends with a deeply, deeply cheesy coda with our heroines talking about how much they missed and feel lost without each other. Our son was reasonably impressed until their conversation, which he dismissed as corny. I think the writers needed to end on something with some emotional heft, after all the angst of season three, so you can dismiss the criticism as coming from the mouth of a monster-crazed nine year-old boy. Fighting, dopplegangers, and skeletons: that’s what he’s here for.

Hope might really be dead this time. Fingers crossed, again.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.1-2 – Adventures in the Sin Trade (parts one and two)

Chanting, blood, and skulls! Now back to 1997 and the remarkably dreary return of Xena: Warrior Princess. When we last left our heroine, Gabrielle, Hope, and Callisto were all dead, and we’re hoping two out of three stay that way. In the two-part season opener, Xena wants to visit the land of the dead to see her only friend one last time, but learns that an old mystic – once her ally, when Xena was a villain – has locked several spirits out of their eternal, peaceful, resting place. So Xena has to deal with the old mystic first.

This was a chore. It’s a moody two hours with flashbacks on top of flashbacks and a lot of shamanism and mysticism and spirits fighting. Part two features one of the most annoying and noisy things I’ve ever sat through, as Xena and her new gang of Siberian Amazons have a bonfire and a nice long shrieking dance while the bad guy preps her attack. The soundtrack is wailing and hollering and it goes on forever.

I liked little bits of it. Part one opens with Xena tracking down the god Hades to ask permission to cross over and see Gabrielle, and Hades says she isn’t in his land of the dead; the Amazons have their own and he knows nothing of it. That’s pretty interesting world-building. And part two sees Xena and her allies enter a dark and quiet patch of woods where a half-dozen skeletons of long-dead warriors are, gruesomely, impaled on trees. It’s a pretty stunning scene, given incredible meat when Xena gives her allies a heartbreaking flashback: these are the long-missing leaders of their Amazon tribe, and several years before, the villainous Xena killed them all. We then get some fine brawling in the trees, using that wire-fu that was briefly popular in the late nineties. It never looked real, but it usually looked really neat.

The kid was not even remotely impressed. We paused part two to give him a quick introduction to shamanism and folk traditions, communing with the dead, that sort of thing. There’s usually blood, skulls, smoke, wailing, all probably as hard on the ears in the real world as this cacophony was on TV. That reminded me of something he’d seen before drawn from similar sources: Doctor Who’s Sisterhood of Karn from “The Brain of Morbius”. So I pulled that off the shelf for a quick refresher. The Sisterhood, whispering their “sacred fire, sacred flame” chant, are far, far less annoying than the Siberian Amazons and their howling, and it was a timely little reminder. He’ll be seeing the Sisterhood again in a little over a month, so stay tuned…

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.21-22 – Sacrifice (parts one and two)

We’ve been navigating around and occasionally dipping into an arc story this year. A demon-god called Dahak gave Gabrielle a magical pregnancy, and she gave birth to a powerful, evil, demigod daughter called Hope, and some ugly stuff happened that we missed, and then Hope is reborn, played by Renee O’Connor in a dual role. She even says “Hello, Mother,” just like Morena Baccarin would keep saying a few years later in the last season of Stargate SG-1. And hey, stay tuned to this blog for more on the subject of babies who grow up into adults in just a few days, because this trope never gets old. Really.

Since this arc has caused nothing but grief and despair and our heroines snapping at each other, I decided we’d power through both parts tonight. Our son hated it completely, mainly because Hudson Leick shows up as Callisto, and he can’t stand her. I thought there were a couple of good moments, but no real surprises. I had trouble swallowing the insane number of Dahak followers who have sprouted from out of nowhere in this region in what seems to have been maybe six or so months, and wonder how the assizes of the ancient world are going to deal with this many freaks needing prison time and/or execution for all the attacks on villages in part two of this story. The real problem is that Ares’s motives are so insanely unclear that he seems to switch sides every time he’s on screen. At one point, he sends a warlord running to build the largest army the world has ever seen to attack Hope and Dahak, and this plot is completely abandoned without comment.

It ends with Hope dead – I think I believe that’ll stick – and Gabrielle dead – pretty sure that won’t – and Callisto dead. I’d have to think about risking any money on that one sticking. The poor kid squirmed through both hours just ready for it to end. I try to judge with an open mind and a kind heart, but really, while the individual hours were mostly made quite well and the comedies featured a few good gags, this season was just too full of angst. I hope that when they get Gabrielle back from the afterlife, season four’s a lot less heavy.

We’ll look at some selections from season four of Xena: Warrior Princess in February. Stay tuned!

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.20 – Vanishing Act

Bruce Campbell’s back for the second week in a row as Autolycus, but this time it’s Lucy Lawless who steals the show. At Autolycus’s direction, because they’re pulling a heist his way, Xena goes undercover as a fence looking for a stolen golden statue. She invents this accent… I guess it’s kind of a brassy Queens accent? Like Fran Drescher or Barbara Nichols? It’s really amusing, but it also took me out of the show completely. I know full well that Lucy Lawless can play lots of different characters. I’m a little less sold that this is among Xena’s talents. I’d believe it a little more if they’d have brought Xena’s lookalike Meg in for this caper.

The other real problem I had with this one is that there’s a really fine twist in the story, and I liked the way that Autolycus is casing this castle and getting ideas. You can see the gears in his head turning, and you can see that our heroes are up to something, only to get the rug pulled out from under them. This is wonderful, and they should have done much more with this, but it’s almost like they were running short this week and needed to beef up the running time with a long scene where Xena convinces Autolycus not to kill their opponent. It’s a preachy scene, terribly out of place, and it totally derails the much better material around it.

Our son was much happier about it than I was. The Autolycus episodes remain among my favorites, and it’s certainly watchable despite my misgivings, but I’m afraid this was certainly his weakest installment so far. We’re also curious how many more times they’re going to use this harbor set. They’ve tried to redress it, but not quite hard enough. I’m pretty sure they used it as the harbor in Jack of All Trades a couple of years later, too.