MCA TV hopes to capitalize on the success of the action show
'Hercules: The Legendary Journeys' with 'Xena: Warrior
Princess.' The shows are the work of Sam Raimi and Rob
Tapert, the team responsible for the movies 'Darkman' and
'Hard Target,' among others. Raimi and Tapert are also
producing the suspense western 'American Gothic.' The
popularity of 'Hercules' is attributed to star Kevin Sorbo's
ability to mix humor and heroism, as well as Raimi and
Tapert's theatrical flair.
On strength of 'Hercules,' producers add 'Xena'
When MCA TV in 1994 launched its Action Pack syndicated
package of telemovies (featuring five different recurring
movies by feature film producers and directors), Sam Raimi
and Rob Tapert's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was deemed
by many the runt of the litter.
"Few people paid much attention to it or gave it much chance
for success compared [with] the other projects," says MCA TV
President Shelly Schwab. A 6.0 Nielsen gross average
audience household rating after the five Hercules movies
aired made it clear, however, that the superhero might pack
a punch after all.
And so it has. Since January, when MCA launched Hercules as
a weekly syndicated show, it has risen to rate consistently
among the top three syndicated action hours.
"It surprises a lot of people, but it doesn't surprise me
and a lot of people at MCA," says Schwab. "We felt good
about it because we knew the people who would do it, Sam and
Robert, have such a strong track record and had such passion
behind it that it had a shot."
Now Tapert and Raimi, whose feature film credits include
"Darkman" and Jean-Claude van Damme thrillers "Time Cop" and
"Hard Target," are expanding their small-screen ambitions.
For fall they are producing syndicated Hercules spin-off
Xena: Warrior Princess and CBS suspense thriller American
Gothic, which deals with an evil sheriff who terrorizes a
small town. All three projects are being distributed by MCA
Television Group, with which Raimi and Tapert's Renaissance
Pictures has a production deal.
With the syndication and network markets littered with the
cancellations of action hour projects, Tapert says it is the
pair's theatrical approach to the action and suspense
elements in their shows that sets them apart.
"I think we bring a greater and wilder action than normal,"
he says. "Hercules is a big barroom brawl on a massive
scale, while Xena's action will be more a Hong Kong style of
acrobatics, martial arts and weaponry."
They also give credit to "Hercules" himself, Kevin Sorbo,
who they say strikes an appealing balance between camp and a
strong image that makes an impression on adults, teens and
Tapert says Raimi, who directed "Darkman" and "Army of
Darkness," has met extensively with the directors of
Hercules and Xena to infuse them with his trademark kinetic
camerawork and suspenseful editing.
American Gothic's signature will be suspense rather than
action, he says. "There's not too much violence, because
violence is a turnoff," says Tapert. "It's the threat of
violence that drives the audience crazy."
However, the opening scene in the American Gothic pilot was
an early--and glaring--exception to that game plan. In the
scene, a man hits his 16-year-old daughter with a shovel.
The evil sheriff (Gary Cole of Midnight Caller) walks up and
snaps her neck. An uproar followed release of the tapes to
television critics; the scenes eventually were shortened to
imply rather than dramatize the blow, and the thud of impact
Raimi later told the critics that although he understood
their concerns, he felt the scene was essential to
establishing the amorality of Cole's character. The series,
created by former teen heartthrob and Hardy Boys star Shaun
Cassidy, is scheduled for Friday at 10 p.m., a low HUT slot
but one that will allow the show to face relatively light
competition from 20/20 on ABC and Homicide: Life on the
Street on NBC. Tapert hopes that AG will garner a crossover
lead-out audience from Fox's own quirky show at 9-10 p.m.,
The X-Files. "We think this will be an accessible version of
Twin Peaks," says Universal Television President Tom Thayer.
"It has a very fine tonal line and a good premise and a
writing staff that can take it in a lot of directions."
Despite their use of visual effects and action, shows like
Hercules, concludes Tapert, are no less in need of good
"After looking at all the episodes and which ones have rerun
best, we realized the shows that did the best weren't those
with the best special effects," says Tapert. "The episodes
that rerun the best are the ones with good stories, good
villains and some sort of moral and redemption to them.
We're trying to create stories that flow out of personality
Tapert and Raimi find themselves concentrating almost
exclusively on television less by design than by fortuity,
"We did something that spun out of something else which spun
into something else," he says. "It's not as lucrative as
feature films that work, but what I enjoy most about
producing television is that in feature films you spend 18
months producing two hours, whereas television is a whole
Commitments to 57 hours of programing for the coming year,
22 episodes each for the syndicated shows and 13 for
American Gothic, will keep them busy for the time being,
Tapert says. But the pair already is developing another
action hour for fall 1996, a pirate saga that would feature
their former Renaissance partner, actor Bruce Campbell.
Ironically, Tapert and Raimi nearly swore off action hours
just before Hercules and after their experience producing
the pilot for Mantis last season for Fox. They left the
project after serious creative differences with Fox.
"It was a horrible battle, and eventually we were paid off
and left," says Tapert of the groundbreaking project, which
featured Carl Lumbly as an African-American superhero. The
show repeatedly was tinkered with by Fox, including a
reduction of its African-American elements to broaden its
audience, but it never gained a ratings foothold and was
"[Fox] violated a basic rule of a superhero story," says
Tapert in retrospect. "They failed to protect their hero and
made him not a hero."