Hercules is all well and good, thinks Judge Adam Arseneau, but nothing beats Rocket Robin Hood. Wait, wrong show.
Our reviews of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Season Two (published December 15th, 2003), Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Season Three (published July 21st, 2004), and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Season Four (published October 20th, 2004) are also available.
For centuries the people had nowhere to turn, no one to look to for help…until he arrived!
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys combined the ease, comfort, familiarity, and friendly banter of the finest syndicated sitcoms with the ass-kicking choreography of a kung-fu film, drawing future fans of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, all the while maintaining a light and silly tone. On paper, this is the perfect show, a staple of vacuous after-school action entertainment. In practice…well, it's a lot cornier. But that's all part of the fun.
Facts of the Case
"He shoots, he kills!"
A brief series synopsis: Hercules and his faithful companion Iolaus travel the land doing good deeds, helping those in need, and tangling with mythical monsters, rampaging warlords, and all manner of ancient gods. Hercules has made it his mission to rescue mankind from the injustice of the gods' petty wrath upon the Earth, hoping to grant humans the freedom to live their own lives and follow their own destiny. That, and beat up a lot of people.
This massive nine-disc box set contains all twenty-two episodes from Season Five, the last full season of the show (there is a sixth season, but it contains scant few episodes):
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, from my understanding, did much better in the ratings on Canadian television than it did in the United States. I admit that I myself spent many an after-school afternoon watching. Hercules was great television after a long day of school / work / life because it entertained, it required minimal use of cognitive skills, and it lit people on fire and threw them through walls—a trifecta of goodness for a weary high school student. Going through this massive nine-disc DVD set, I was surprised exactly how many episodes I had seen on syndication…way more than I'd ever want to publicly admit.
If you have been living in a cave for the last decade or so and have never seen an episode of Hercules or Xena, this is definitely not a literal adaptation of the Greek mythology. We are talking serious literary hyperbole here. Hercules takes creative license to the most extreme levels, like a 16-year-old on crystal meth taking a driving exam. The show plays with the format of a weekly action serial to extreme levels, often with bewilderingly hilarious results. Rumor has it the writers of Hercules looked up the term "suspension of disbelief" once, but only on a dare.
Most television shows follow an internal set of rules and guidelines, a self-regulated reality check to keep things more or less on the same page. Hercules pretty much does anything it damn well pleases, any time it wants. Have Merlin send Arthur of Camelot back in time a thousand years to meet Hercules? Sure, why not? Take Hercules to Ireland to help fight the invading armies of Caesar? Makes sense! Let Hercules duke it out with Thor, the Norse God of Thunder? Well, duh. Have an episode where the modern-day producers and writers of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys retreat to a camp for a writing workshop to come up with better ideas for the show, only to have "Kevin Sorbo" fighting off agents of Ares, the God of War? Heck, who needed that fourth wall anyway? (No, seriously, that last one actually happened. Great episode.)
If there was ever a show fueled entirely on love, this is it. The special effects are "special" in the unflattering sense of the word, the acting is loosely defined as such, and campiness runs amok through every aspect of the series. Combine that with some of the worst one-liners you will ever hear, and voila! What else would you expect from a show executive-produced by Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert (Evil Dead, Army Of Darkness)? Well, you would expect Bruce Campbell to show up. And he does, playing the King of Thieves, Autolycus. He's great. Long-time extras like the ineffable Kevin Smith (the kung-fu New Zealander, not Silent Bob) as Ares, the God of War, have their roles down so pat, they simply shine. All the actors are having serious amounts of fun and you can see it on their faces.
Years before Peter Jackson ever got out his hobbit-cloak and camera, Hercules and Xena were tromping through the scenic and untouched New Zealand landscape with fantastically exotic and pristine location shots. Ancient Greece it wasn't, but hey, close enough. With the exception of its principal actors and producers, the majority of Hercules' cast, crew, and extras were local talents, all doing their best to mask their accents (with comical results). Listening to the cast and crew discuss the show, with mixtures of full-faced grins and embarrassed winces, you realize that they love this show, fully and unconditionally—bad moments and all. There is no grand rationalization, no deep meaningful subtext; they went out and made the best show they knew how to make, both funny and dramatic, celebrating their victories and accepting its many, many flaws.
Season Five is unusually focused and moody for Hercules, which enjoyed success as a weekly serial of silly beat-'em-ups with little continuity between episodes. In the fifth season, the death of a main character drives Hercules into a focused fury, a contentious and highly debated turning point among fans. Some say that it brings the show into a new dramatic and introspective maturity, while others say it jumped the shark something fierce. Either way, as a result of this death, Hercules spends the entire season trying to (a) come to agonizing terms with the death, (b) beat up lots of people, and (c) scheming ways to cheat the gods into bringing the dead back to life. The best episodes this season involve combinations of all three of these factors. Hercules also gets a love interest, an Irish Xena knockoff named Morrigan, which keeps him pretty occupied when not preoccupied with soul-searching. With the final defeat of Hera in the fourth season, Hercules now needed a villain to battle against, since the entire series built up towards the ultimate confrontation between Hera and Zeus. The problem was solved by taking Hercules to distant lands like Ireland, Mesopotamia, Norway, et cetera, to encounter other gods the world over. It really didn't matter much—new faces, same old game. Despite the introspective and exotic twists and changes the show tried out, the fundamental formula of the show stayed the same, and even during the most dramatic and tear-jerking moments, the show maintained its tongue-in-cheek bemusement to the very end.
The transfer is decent overall, but problematic at times. Sequences shot in full daylight are crisp, detailed, and vibrant, but nighttime sequences (especially battles) are dreadful, with smearing reds, chaotic black levels, bleeding, and a compete lack of definition. It doesn't help things that the first episode on the set, "Faith," starts off with a nighttime battle sequence, but it gets better, I assure you. Browns, blues, and grays come across particularly nice, and though the quality of shots varies per episode (some are soft, some are sharp, some are faded, some are vibrant, and so on), the overall presentation is quite pleasing.
Audio is even more peculiar than the visual transfer. Our only option, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, seems to have been mixed in order to substitute for a stereo track. All the key elements—dialogue, sound effects, music cues, and environmental sounds—are shoved directly in front of you, making for a muddled mix of chaotic noises. The rear channels contain all the unimportant sounds and music cues, and while the effect is definitely immersive in terms of surround coverage, the terrible imbalance between front and rear channels is almost silly. In fact, I found myself picking up on the rear channels cutting out now and again, as if having no sounds to produce for a second or two. In a good surround mix, this would never be noticeable.
The solution? Switch to a stereo presentation instead of a surround mode, and suddenly all the elements fall into place. The music tones down, the environmental noises stop drowning out the dialogue, and the presentation becomes much more satisfactory. Why the creators of this DVD decided to mix a surround mode for stereo consumption, I have no idea, but there you go. With the output reset to stereo, the track sounds almost decent, with aggressive music mixing, balanced bass response, and clear dialogue.
In terms of extra material, this box set offers up a semi-reasonable assortment of commentary tracks, video interviews, and CD-ROM features. Three episodes ("Faith," "For Those Of You Just Joining Us," and "Stranger And Stranger") contain full-length audio commentary with cast and crew, and eight episodes contain supplementary video interviews discussing technical points, set impressions, and other trivia. The interviewees include Kevin Sorbo, Michael Hurst, Michael Levine, Paul Robert Coyle, Joel Tobeck, Hudson Leick, Gene O'Neill, Noreen Tobin, and assorted others. Sorbo, in particular, seems awfully keen on speaking his mind, while co-star Hurst seems mostly bored and nonplussed by the entire affair. Two featurettes, an on-set interview with Kevin Sorbo and Anthony Quinn (a notable guest star), and a special effects demo are also included. The ninth disc contains such CD-ROM material as series trivia, mythology references, production drawings, bios and assorted material, sure to delight the hardcore fan and mildly interest the casual viewer.
What these DVDs are missing, however, are subtitles. An irritating omission, but what can you do?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What makes a show like Hercules great to watch in syndication is the comfort factor—the predictability (even when the show goes out of its way to be unpredictable) and the repetition. The formula for most episodes went thus: Hercules encounters a village / tribe / city full of people made desperate by a monster / giant / humongous snake / god / rampaging warlord, and Hercules must beat / kick / stomp / rescue / slay his way into solving the problem. You could set your watch by the plot developments. It felt good coming home and watching, because you knew exactly what to expect; and even if the show stepped out and did something bizarre and daring, it was still a lot of fun.
On DVD, however, especially when faced with an incredibly daunting nine-disc DVD set, the novelty of comfort and predictability gives way to tedium slightly…but only slightly. I mean, sit down and watch eight or nine of these suckers back-to-back, and tell me you don't feel it. Yikes.
Hercules, in many ways, is a spiritual predecessor to shows like Buffy or Angel, whether either group of fans wants to admit it or not. The programs have more common elements than foreign ones: They are rooted in the mythological or supernatural, inspire disturbingly rabid and loyal fan bases, and offer a compelling blend of personal drama, hilarious slapstick, witty dialogue, and ass-kicking martial arts. And the best episodes were consistently the ones in which these shows went above their boundaries, breaking straight out the box and messing with the very formula of the weekly serial. There is a reason everyone loved the musical episode of Buffy or the puppet episode of Angel so much, and likewise the same fanaticism with Hercules. Everyone should have to watch "For Those Of You Just Joining Us" at least once—without a doubt, the funniest clip show ever created, for any show, ever.
What better way to appreciate the show than through an excellent box set like this? Sure, the show is a bit rough around the edges, what with the corny acting, lame production values, and fake American accents, but all this is part of the campy fun. This is not the kind of show you take seriously. More than its sister show Xena, which got very serious and spiritual towards the end, Hercules always knew how to have a good time above all else, even at the expense of logic, common sense, thousands of years of cultural and spiritual tradition, or accepted world history.
If you let a little thing like Greek mythology predating Christianity by a good 1,200 years slow you down, you would never be able to have the Archangel Michael unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the world. And what fun would that be?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary by Cast and Crew Members on Three Episodes ("Faith," "For Those Of You Just Joining Us," and "Stranger And Stranger")
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