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MCA muscles in on action hours; on strength of 'Hercules,' producers add 'Xena.'

Broadcasting and Cable Magazine

21 August 1995

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 kids.

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 was removed.

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 writing.

"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 and goals."

Tapert and Raimi find themselves concentrating almost exclusively on television less by design than by fortuity, says Tapert.

"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 different ballgame."

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 canceled.

"[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."


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