For this review, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger came down from Parnassus and inhabited the body of a white bull. He swallowed Lucy Lawless in one gulp, but she fought him from within and sprang forth to deliver us this review. She then kicked his sorry hide back up the mountain.
Our reviews of Xena: The 10th Anniversary Collection (published September 21st, 2005), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season One (published May 26th, 2003), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season Three (published May 17th, 2004), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season Four (published September 29th, 2004), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season Five (published October 27th, 2004), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season Six (published June 15th, 2005), and Xena: Warrior Princess Multipath Adventure (published October 19th, 2000) are also available.
"Do you know where we can find an Immortal?"
You probably remember Xena: Warrior Princess from its heyday. After all, it was the Number One new syndicated program on American television for some time, and ran an impressive seven years. You may recall the campy attitude, the blend of darkness and action. What you may not remember is that the series was funny. Yes, we all know it had tongue firmly in cheek, but I'm talking gut-busting antics that play equally well today. Season Two also brought something else of note, something that set chat rooms ablaze in 1996. In "Return of Callisto," Xena and Gabrielle share one of the most widely discussed kisses in the history of television. Are they or aren't they? This season acknowledges and plays upon sexual ambiguity. With the continued popularity of Sam Raimi as a director and the recent upsurge in the popularity of fantasy stories, it may be time to revisit Xena: Warrior Princess.
Facts of the Case
Xena (Lucy Lawless) and Gabrielle (Renée O'Connor) continue their travels in the world of ancient Greek myth. Xena, once a brutal and remorseless warlord set on world domination, is trying to right the wrongs of her past. Her companion, Gabrielle, is a bard who has gained some fighting skill under Xena's tutelage. Together, they confront challenges set by both gods and men. The only certainty in Xena's life is that strife and peril converge wherever she treads.
Season One of Xena: Warrior Princess was audacious and entertaining, yet it didn't challenge its own constraints. The episodes tended to be formulaic and weren't integrated into a larger story. Thematic arcs did emerge, but if you missed an episode or two, you wouldn't be lost.
Season Two steps up to the camera, flashes a dazzling smile, and takes off running. I was more entertained than I expected to be, even given my favorable recollections of the series from its original run. Season Two displays staggering range, with greater extremes of comedy and tragedy. The fundamental shtick from Season One survives intact, but the series feels somehow richer the second time around. The episodes lead into one another, creating the sense of a tighter storyline. (By the way, if you are unfamiliar with that storyline, beware of the spoilers below.)
I was slightly disappointed in the opening episode. It takes a cheap shot by introducing Xena's son, whom she gave up years ago. The subsequent action seems larger than life, with rampaging centaurs and the like, yet I wasn't drawn in. Here comes Xena, she kicks butt, argues with Gabrielle, and then she leaves.
To say that the ship quickly rights itself is an understatement. The very next episode, "Remember Nothing," creates a devilish sense of anticipation as Xena tries to go through life without shedding blood (some may recall that the show rarely shows blood, but I digress). Over the course of the episode, you're just waiting for her to bust out the can of whoopass. It was a delightful tension to see Xena so restrained.
A barrage of innovative episodes follows, some of them downright strange. Take, for example, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," wherein Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer are beset by mewling succubae in service to Bacchus. Xena must get the head of Orpheus into the lair of Bacchus, without becoming a Bacchai herself. This episode is notable for many elements, not the least of which is the outlandish image of a demigod's head being paraded around on a scarecrow body. Then there is the techno music soundtrack, and the seduction of Gabrielle by the Bacchae. Odd, odd stuff…but hysterically funny and tinged with gothic darkness. Similarly themed "outrageous comedy" episodes pepper the rest of the season, such as "Warrior…Princess…Tramp," where Lucy Lawless plays three distinct characters who continually switch places with one another. (Of course, the tramp is the most fun!)
Of these, the most outlandish is "The Xena Scrolls," which blows away any sense of boundaries. It is set in the 1940s, with Gabrielle as a swashbuckling, tomb-raiding archaeologist, and Xena as a prim secretary. Joxer shows up as a con man impersonating a French captain. It is a great risk to jump so completely out of the genre; most producers would think twice before doing something similar. Xena: Warrior Princess could have easily jumped the shark here, but it did not. The melodramatic acting is cranked up several notches, and Renée O'Connor is the victim. She plays the vulnerable and buoyant Gabrielle with poise, but her sneering tough gal act isn't very convincing. Ironically, the annoying Ted Raimi shines as Jacques S'Er. Lucy Lawless gracefully takes a back seat to her co-stars. This is one of the strangest pranks in television history.
In addition to the comedic episodes that take Xena far outside her usual boundaries, some equally hysterical episodes are firmly rooted in the Xena tradition. Of special note is "Here She Comes…Miss Amphipolis," an episode that parades as a filler episode. Xena must participate in a beauty pageant to keep opposing warlords from reigniting a recent feud. The episode unexpectedly erupts into a gay burlesque, with a cross-dressing man who loves musicals being crowned Miss Amphipolis. I had tears in this one, real tears of laughter. "A Day in the Life" is funny and deservedly gets the bulk of fan attention, but don't overlook "Miss Amphipolis"!
While we are on the subject of humor, special mention must be made of Bruce Campbell, who plays Autolycus (and Xena) in "The Quest." The man has impeccable comedic timing. The stuff he was saying wasn't even all that funny, but the way he pulled off every line quickly had me gasping for air.
After all this, you may believe that Xena: Warrior Princess is a comedy. But you'd only be half right. The flip side is melodramatic action and mythology that reach surprising peaks of emotional power. Perhaps the highest peak comes in the episode "Destiny." Dying from internal injuries, Xena reviews her past in a feverish recollection. A naïve ship's captain with skill and ambition, not yet hardened to life, Xena is swept up in a struggle between several powerful personalities including the notorious Julius Caesar. Karl Urban of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers fame portrays a convincing Caesar, giving him believable arrogance and cunning willpower. What happens to Xena is dramatic and terrible, leaving a lasting impression. Yes, Xena: Warrior Princess is capable of evoking menace and tragedy as well as comedy.
Hudson Leick is responsible for much of it. She gives Xena's nemesis Callisto such twisted enthusiasm that you can't help but watch her every move. Callisto is reintroduced early in the aptly named "Return of Callisto." Callisto is chained to a chair in a padded cell, evoking images of Hannibal Lecter. Her eventual escape pushes the bounds of brutality. It helps that Leick is incredibly attractive, but the character is thought out carefully. She cruelly taunts, provokes, and tortures Xena and Gabrielle throughout the season. The fights with Callisto have an extra edge of tension and malice. Each subsequent reintroduction of Callisto seems more dramatic that the previous one. Eventually, Callisto tastes Ambrosia and gains godlike powers. When her fathomless brown eyes turn milky white, it makes for one of the most startling images in the series.
Would that Callisto was the only enemy. Gods, men, and mythological entities beset Xena at every turn. Centaurs, giants, and other such creatures give Xena a unique flavor among modern television shows. In "Ten Little Warlords," for example, Xena must help Ares regain his godhood while fighting eight warlords and the devious Sisyphus. The only problem is that she's trapped in Callisto's body. This is a perfect example of the mythological farce that Xena pulled off weekly.
One part of me sneered at the improbable parade of mythological figures, while another part marveled at Xena's unflappable composure. Lucy Lawless is a fine comedic actress who is physically gifted as well, which allows her to perform an incredible array of pseudo-dangerous and funny stunts. (Sam Raimi's bag of tricks helps, of course.) Xena is an iconic figure, which means that Lucy Lawless doesn't have to carry the weight solely through her acting. But would Xena have become such an icon without Lawless's charisma and dazzling smile?
Many would argue that this is all window dressing for the real heart of the show, which is the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. Men and women both appreciate the frequent teases, such as when Xena inhabits the body of Autolycus and wages a full onslaught of tongue wrestling with Gabrielle. But the relationship is deeper than hints of lesbianism. They have a symbiotic emotional bond that supports much of the show's emotion and appeal. It seems that Gabrielle is constantly being thrust from Xena's company, and their reunions always manage to tug my heartstrings (even though I consider myself a cold fish when it comes to media manipulation). The two are alone without each other and whole with each other, a simple yet powerful message.
As a boxed set, Season Two fares much better than Season One. Season One was really grainy, with myriad compression artifacts and other flaws. This time, the flaws are mostly gone, leaving a reasonable (if pronounced) grain behind. The color depth and detail are surprising for a low-budget show from the Nineties. In fact, the detail is so good that I could perceive flaws in the makeup and set construction. It is no wonder that television producers fear the advent of HDTV. The sound continues to thrive under a 5.1 remix. At several points a 2.0 downmix sounded better, but at least they made the effort to bring Xena into the surround realm.
There are slightly more extras this time around, including three video commentaries. Renée O'Connor and Lucy Lawless flip-flop their onscreen personas, with O'Connor seeming pensive and logical while Lawless seems light and carefree. They make a show of forgetting the kiss, the kiss that set the world afire (or at least the Internet). Robert G. Tapert gave me a much better impression of the show by explaining why Xena spends so much time offscreen: Lawless incurred an injury during the season's shooting and they had to work around her. The commentaries are not groundbreaking, but they are fun and worth a look. Anchor Bay has done the same style of commentaries as were used in the Highlander sets—the audio commentary session was filmed and you have the option of watching an abbreviated video commentary. I prefer this approach because you get the best parts and can watch the commentators' reactions.
It may be a small detail, but I really appreciate the pictures that were used in the fold-out DVD sleeve. These are classic images from the series, and they create a sense of anticipation for the episode. For example, I spent most of "A Necessary Evil" waiting for Callisto's eyes to turn blue.
With better image quality, remastered sound, better extras, and a better show, Xena: Warrior Princess takes off in this Season Two boxed set. Let loose, find your sense of campy humor, and dive into this fantasy foray that works in spite of its outlandish premise.
Somehow, Xena has managed to wriggle her way out of the court's wrath yet again. His honor laughed in spite of his haughty disdain. Xena, Gabrielle, and Callisto are all hot to boot, with Karl Urban and Kevin Smith there to please the ladies. Carry on!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio and Video Commentary for "Return of Callisto" (Lucy Lawless and Renée O'Connor)
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