A Long, Strange Trip

My latest guilty pleasure has been watching Hercules: The Legendary Journeys on Netflix. Yes, that Hercules. The one Xena: Warrior Princess is a spin-off from. What can I say? I’ve developed a taste for camp. Not to mention I didn’t appreciate the series when it first came out, although the pretentiousness I displayed in my twenties may have had something (everything) to do with that.

I’ve realized two things as I watch this series. First, they did a remarkably good job of staying true to the source material, considering that it was a pretty campy, not-for-primetime “filler” show that was the modern answer to Land of the Lost. The second thing I realized right after that is there was no way they could stay anywhere close to the source material and still get on network TV. Even HBO might have a problem with it. I mean think about it. You think Game of Thrones is hardcore? How many episodes of maidens getting raped by swans, bulls, and golden showers (insert your own joke here) do you think they’d get away with before they get the show pulled? And those were just some of Zeus’ hijinks.

Between all the rape, murder, and general awfulness of Greek mythology, it’s hard to remember that this is supposed to be some of the best culture in history. I’ve written before about how 90% of everything is crap, and that only the good stuff survives. So what does that say about us? What does that say about our forebears? It’s not like someone is still writing Greek mythology, although clearly we’re still reinterpreting it. But throughout history, when there was a horrible fire and only one book could be saved, this was the one. When scribes painstakingly copied crumbling scrolls by candlelight, this is what they copied.

It’s easy to say that we love these myths for their cultural value, and I’m more than familiar with the analysis of them as explanations of natural phenomenon, nor do I deny that side of them. But I also think there’s some element of Stephen King’s “feeding the alligators” going on here. Civilization is a thin veneer we pull over the savage, and sooner or later he’s going to want blood. Even in the cleaned up version there’s a fight in every episode, damsels in distress abound, betrayal is common, sex is not infrequent (although it’s the punch line of a joke as often as not), and people die. Let’s not forget that the series begins with Hercules’ family being killed by Hera (although directly this time, rather than indirectly through the tool of Hercules himself as in the original myth). And we want that. We want the gore, the horror, the betrayal and the sex and the cruelty of the gods and all the rest (“Red Wedding” anyone?). I’m not sure what that says about us, except perhaps the more things change…

If you want some good, campy fun that is remarkably witty and has held up surprisingly well over the years, I highly recommend Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. If you want “Oh, dear God, don’t do that, she’s your mother!” I highly recommend the original myths the series is based on.



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