Xena: Warrior Princess 2.13 – The Quest

You can view most television through a variety of lenses. Me, I seem to most like fresh takes on adventure teevee tropes, light humor, and great actors. I think the presentation is often more important than the plot, which is a good thing in the case of “The Quest,” because this silly hour has a lot of holes and a lot of problems. This one introduces a new villain named Velasca, an Amazon who’s all ham and cleavage, and when Gabrielle takes a detour through Amazon country en route to returning Xena’s body to her home, she… wait, it’s really dumb. Let me start over.

The Amazons intercept Gabrielle because they want to give Xena a ceremonial funeral-by-fire. Gabrielle declines, because Xena wished to be buried next to her brother. Gabrielle’s not in her right mind anyway; she keeps asking why Xena “left” her, when we saw last time that about 1500 pounds of lumber pancaked Xena into a tree and she didn’t seem to have a lot of choice in the matter. The Amazons, including old pal Ephiny (Danielle Cormack), explain that Velasca (Melinda Clarke) has stepped into a power vacuum that Gabrielle, who was made a princess about a year ago, can settle. So she decides to become their queen and let ’em torch Xena’s corpse without worrying about it too much, and then she changes her mind. Velasca starts screaming about how Gabrielle has betrayed the Amazons, and about 90% of them agree and go nuts about it. Lady, she changed funeral plans, she didn’t sell your secrets to the Romans.

So yes, the whole thing is baked in stupid, and yet it’s still hugely entertaining because Bruce Campbell’s wonderful character Autolycus, the King of Thieves, is back in town. Xena’s spirit has taken over his body in order to get her own corpse to some death-cheating stuff, but she doesn’t want Gabrielle to know what she’s up to for some reason that’s never explained either… even Michael Hurst, who played the sidekick character on Hercules, shows up to give Gabrielle about the legal limit of condolence hugs before it gets creepy.

Perhaps it’s wrongheaded of me to look at this predominantly female-driven hour and say that’s only worth watching when Bruce Campbell is onscreen, but I’m afraid it’s true. Even the hour’s centerpiece moment, when astral-plane Xena and astral-plane Gabrielle share a great big yes-they-did-ladies, they-really-did kiss, is anchored by it happening between real-world Autolycus and real-world Gabrielle. I don’t think that’s right; this episode should have been tight and sensible and watchable even before Bruce Campbell got anywhere near the story, and the producers should have had the guts, once Xena was restored by the cheat-death Macguffin, to let the ladies lock lips without letting any man’s body get between them.

Jack of All Trades 2.8 – Seventy Brides for One Brother

Jack of All Trades wrapped up with another cringe-inducing episode which really isn’t suitable for nine year-olds to watch in the company of their folks, so let’s just take a minute to celebrate that amazing opening sequence. I think it’s such a shame these have gone by the wayside over the years. It was nominated for an Emmy, back when there were enough opening sequences to warrant giving an Emmy to one of them, and features a fantastically catchy little march sung by a band of hard-drinking fellers in a tavern. Our son says it’s the best TV opening ever – “even better than Thunderbirds!” – and while I wouldn’t put it in my own top five personally, it’s certainly up there. And what is my top five? Why, it’s:

Department S
Kolchak: The Night Stalker
Man in a Suitcase
Strange Report
Thunderbirds

The show got cancelled before it could get any smuttier. Apparently some stations complained that they’d rather have one series on for one hour instead of two sharing the Back 2 Back Action Pack slot. Jack‘s companion series, Cleopatra 2525, was more easily adapted to one-hour adventures so it got the nod to continue, and then production on it ended just two months later. That put an end to Renaissance Pictures’ cycle of TV shows produced in New Zealand for a while. Seven years later, they made another program there called Legend of the Seeker which I’d never heard of, but in the modern world of streaming, there’s really not much call for direct-to-syndication programming anymore, is there?

Jack of All Trades 2.7 – Hamnesia

My son and my wife groaned when they realized this was an amnesia episode; my wife then grumbled when Jack decides to take advantage of Emilia’s amnesia by telling her that she’s a prank-loving party animal. But the joke is on him, because she hears “sociopathic wild child” and decides to raise more hell in pursuit of a missing deed than Jack can babysit.

Trying to follow a clue about hogs, they end up at the Drunken Pig. Emilia starts a bar fight that our hero can’t risk trying to win, so he gets clobbered and smacked and has a chair broken across his back. It’s a delightful scene that reminded me of how Bruce Campbell had spent most of the 1980s getting the stuffing knocked out of him because Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert couldn’t afford a stuntman. Later, he goes face-first in the mud. You just know there was a double on set quietly telling the director “I can do that, you know,” but it’s okay, Bruce can handle anything.

So the kid loved it and laughed a lot, but we’ve been watching a Looney Tunes short or two a couple of times a week and tonight one of them was the star attraction. Most of these are good for a few chuckles (although some have aged rather better than the ones Robert McKimson directed), but tonight, the legendary “Rabbit Fire” came up. Our buddies Kelley and Matt showed him this a while back and it’s one of his favorites. His eyes lit up when he saw the title card and he shouted “duck season, wabbit season!” He usually likes the main feature more than the pre-show cartoon, but while he loved Jack losing the bar fight, “Rabbit Fire” is in a class by itself.

Jack of All Trades 2.6 – One, Two, Three: Give Me Lady Liberty!

Verne Troyer’s final appearance as Napoleon is the Thanksgiving episode – it originally aired in most US markets the week of November 18, 2000 – and it’s as anachronistic as ever. One of the Thanksgiving traditions is a football game. There was a Detroit in 1801 – the city celebrated its centennial that year – but the Lions were still 129 years in the future. The kid adored the football game and laughed throughout it. It is, after all, just a few minutes of silly stunts. In the real world, he likes the Titans because all his pals do, but he can’t make three quarters without losing interest completely.

Much earlier in the blog, I’d planned to show our son Planet of the Apes, but I thought better of it; he’s not as gentle as he was anymore – he’s a big NINE YEAR-OLD now – but when I had it penciled in back in 2017, he would have hated it. It is a pretty rough movie in places. I punted it down to later this year, and he’s certain to enjoy it more than he would have then. But sadly, I sailed it right past the one yard line where it would have been perfect. I wish we’d have seen it a couple of weeks ago instead of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, because there’s a delicious little Apes callback right at the end, with Verne Troyer in the Charlton Heston role. Ah, well, we will look at Apes later this year and he’ll get the gag.

Jack of All Trades 2.5 – Croquey in the Pokey

I said to myself, “Wow, I really hope tonight’s episode isn’t as inappropriate as some of the others,” and the very first shot is a close-up of guest star Ingrid Park’s cleavage. The almost funny thing is that – probably because we’re missing the Silver Scream Spook Show, which has been postponed for several more weeks – I had a fancy the other day to introduce him to Elvira’s Movie Macabre. This is while knowing perfectly well that, as amusing as I find her, eight-going-on-nine is far too young for some of her comedy. Then I said “Hey, what about that Mistress of the Dark movie she made”… and then I remembered the boobs-n-tassles finale of that movie. So no.

So the episode opened with that shot and the devil opened up a very special cell for me for when I get done with this mortal coil forty or fifty years from now, but then the gods of inappropriate comedy smiled on me and said that was enough for one half hour, and the rest of the show was perfectly kid-acceptable. At one point, the Daring Dragoon smacks a prison guard face-first into an alarm bell several times. Finishing with him, our hero says “That’s using your head,” and the kid couldn’t see straight for laughing so hard.

Jack of All Trades 2.4 – The Morning After

Verne Troyer returns as Napoleon in this one, which is back to being pretty inappropriate, but oh well. This time he schemes to rule the world by way of a wine with a powerful hypnotizing drug. One bottle of this as a goodwill gift to Thomas Jefferson and the White House’ll be Bonaparte’s new summer home! Also, Napoleon has a Gatling gun and the Daring Dragoon has a bulletproof cape and Jack and Emilia wake up naked in bed together without any memory of the night before. Wince, wait for a swordfight, repeat.

Jack of All Trades 2.3 – Monkey Business

This one begins with a Raiders of the Lost Ark parody, and no sooner do our heroes get back with the priceless treasure that George III commanded they steal than Jack gets a message from Thomas Jefferson commanding him to steal it from Emilia. Wacky hijinks ensue, but even though the physical comedy and slapstick are both first-rate, I believe our son was most taken with Jack calling himself “the human pincushion” after getting several ancient tribal darts in the rear. He was still quietly chuckling that line under his breath in the second half of the episode.

Jack of All Trades 2.2 – Shark Bait

Last night, we were watching a cerebral look at causality and time, an innovative and considered hour that inspired hundreds of later adventures. Tonight, we watched fart jokes. To our son’s enormous pleasure, Hori Ahipene returned to scream, yell, and bellow as that firebreathing, farting foe of the Seven Seas, the most vulgar of all villains, Blackbeard.

I thought this kid was going to explode waiting for Blackbeard to explode. During the critical “make the other villain spill all the beans” scene, Blackbeard is just about ready to let rip with one of his inferno burps. The kid was already crying from laughter, and then he pops a cork in his mouth. I don’t know that the kid remembered anything after that. Michael Hurst, who played Iolaus in most of Hercules, plays the other villain, Nardo da Vinci.

Sadly, the end of the episode shows Blackbeard and Nardo getting away together. I’m sure they must have been planning a rematch, but the show’s unexpected cancellation put paid to that. Still, they made two half-hours with a bad guy that every elementary school-aged boy is sure to rank among the greats. Say what you might about Davros, Loki, or the Hood, but none of those also-rans can give a hot-air balloon a spark by way of nuclear toots.

Jack of All Trades 2.1 – A Horse of a Different Color

And now back to 1801, or 2000, and the second season of Jack of All Trades, where history’s not as you remember it and every other line is a double entendre. In this world, Russia apparently has more than the one and a half ports it had in ours back then, because Katherine the Great has surrounded Pulau-Pulau with a massive fleet armed with remarkably accurate cannons. Our Catherine, with a C, died prior to 1801 as a much older woman than this episode depicts.

And why does Katherine the Great care about this tiny, insignificant island? Well, there’s a horse race going on, and you might as well let your mind go straight into the gutter, because that’s where this bawdy half-hour goes. If this kid of ours knew what the heck was going on, then good grief, it’d be inappropriate. Fortunately, there’s exciting horse racing and lots of stunts as the riders brawl from the saddle, and gambling, as Emilia loses everything she owns at the track. So even if our son knew what they were talking about, there were distractions.

Katherine the Great is played by Danielle Cormack, who played Ephiny in Xena. As we learned a couple of weeks ago, Ephiny married a centaur. There’s typecasting for you.

Xena: Warrior Princess 1.17 – The Royal Couple of Thieves

There are certain things in adventure fiction that are guaranteed. One of them: if heroes decide to go undercover at a meeting of villains by disguising themselves as a villain who they believe cannot make it, their cover will be blown, usually by the villain making it after all. Part of the joy of Bruce Campbell’s debut in Xena as Autolycus – the “King of Thieves” had been introduced in Hercules a few months previously – is waiting for his and Xena’s cover to be blown. If you’re not smiling ear to ear when it happens, you must be new to this sort of show.

Several chapters back, I mentioned that I’d seen a couple of episodes of Xena when the program first aired, enjoyed them, but really didn’t have time for a new show to watch. I think that if I’d run into “The Royal Couple of Thieves,” I’d have made time. This was tremendous fun. Autolycus really doesn’t appreciate being kidnapped and press-ganged into service to steal some supernatural weapon held on a fortress island and spends most of the episode finding delightful, hilarious ways to get back at Xena for getting him into this mess. There’s not a lot of room for Gabrielle in this adventure. Pairing Campbell’s effortless wit and ego with Lucy Lawless’s slow simmer is brilliant chemistry, but really crowds out our favorite super-talkative co-star. It ends with some beautiful physical comedy, as Autolycus leans in, about two inches at a time, for a farewell kiss, each movement parried by Xena, stone-faced, raising an eyebrow about one millimeter.

I chuckled through the whole thing. The kid enjoyed it as well, and the clouds in his brain might be parting, because he recognized Campbell. “I know him! He’s from Jack of All Trades,” he said. On the other hand, he didn’t recognize the supernatural weapon that they need to steal. My knowledge of the ancient world is really quite poor, and this show plays kind of fast and loose with mythology and history anyway, but I’m genuinely not sure how – or when – the poor villagers in this story got hold of the Ark of the Covenant.

We’re partially to blame because we’re not a religious family and had not, until tonight, told him the story of Moses, but unfortunately, prior to this evening, the words “Ark” and “Covenant” didn’t actually mean anything to him other than “the McGuffin in Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And yet I’m certain that when we saw Raiders last year at the Tivoli, I leaned over when Indy and Marcus were talking to those government fellows and whispered “This is important.” Anyway, the grownups got a good smile when the box sends out a heat ray to incinerate the last villain standing and our heroes find some tablets inside it. The kid got a little Sunday schoolin’. Tonight, I’ll refamiliarize myself with Noah – and Utnapishtim – just in case we run into a flood story in this series.

Jack of All Trades 1.14 – It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Opera

Perhaps as they finished the first season of Jack of All Trades, the producers asked themselves what elements of their show were working best with the under-tens and did them all again. Fight scenes, crazy slapstick physics, bad puns, even gross-out comedy with another visiting historical personage playing with his food. In a lovely followup to Blackbeard and all his screaming and burping at the dinner table in episode three, this installment introduces us to George III, who pratfalls, spits wine everywhere, and does everything with his mashed potatoes short of making a model of Devil’s Tower.

Ingrid Park’s Camille is back for more villainy, and this time she conspires with an actor to have George III assassinated at the opera. Maybe it’s because we watched the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon The Rabbit of Seville a couple of weeks ago, but I figured somebody on stage was going to get clobbered with a sandbag, and I was not wrong. This was an absolutely splendid, demented, and very funny half hour of television, and the kid’s sorry to see it head back to the shelf.

We’ll pick up Jack and Emilia’s adventures in season two of Jack of All Trades in mid-April. Stay tuned!