I’ve been re-watching Xena: Warrior Princess for the first time since high school, and it is just as glorious as I remembered. Back then I would watch it every day when I got home, because the SciFi Channel did not buy something in syndication and then let it languish in one slot per week. Now, I also watched a bit of Hercules, but I must say this: Xena is campy as hell, but Hercules? TOO MUCH EVEN FOR ME.
There are many reasons Xena is the best show. I don’t mean in a contest versus Hercules, either. I mean best show. Also, caveat that I am in season 3 of my re-watch and will definitely come back to this topic when I finish. Back in the day I stopped watching before the final season because of a plot line that DEVASTATED ME, so I have never-before-seen episodes in my future.
All that aside, let us begin.
First of all, Xena don’t give a shit about timelines. She is simultaneously part of every heroic Greek myth (aka like a thousand years BCE) and also crossing paths with folks like Cleopatra and Caesar and the Knights of the Round Table. At least these Knights weren’t Arthur’s crew, and in addition to fighting some hilariously dressed banshees this plot line gives us the excellent background joke of Xena casually plucking the sword from the stone and putting it back. OH XENA.
Secondly, Xena don’t give a shit about geography. Greece is so small she just bumps into everyone she knows walking town to town. She can dart home to visit her mother within a day’s ride on Argo. Heck, the entire world is so small that on a whim she can help a random guy they meet sail to Brittania (where of course she’ll fight alongside her old friend Bodecia) and in the next episode she’s headed to the ancient land of Chin.
The support cast is sublime, a true Sam Raimi production. Bruce Campbell, Karl Urban, that guy from Lord of the Rings, Karl Urban again, LOTR guy again, Karl Urban as a third guy–hey, you don’t under-utilize Karl Urban once you’ve got him. And while the main crew is quite white, the rotating episodic cast is the entire population of New Zealand, which means instead of anybody actually looking Greek we’ve got white, black, Maori, you name it, and every once in a while somebody slips into a thick New Zealander accent and nobody cares. Shall I mention Cleopatra again? Because she is played by one of my all-time babes, Gina Torres.
Um, there is an episode in which Xena goes undercover in the Miss Known World beauty pageant and not only does a transgender woman win the pageant–but it isn’t played for laughs. She confides her secret in Xena, Xena doesn’t bat an eye, and they share a smooch at the end (which makes trusty sidekick Gabrielle look a little jealous, because this show is also full of SUBTEXT).
The costume department had free reign and they used it. Leather fetish? SURE. Anachronistic push-up bras and Victoria Secret lingerie? WHO CARES. This is a TIME OF ANCIENT GODS. WARLORDS. AND KINGS. The land is CRYING OUT FOR A HERO.
Even the worst episodes are wonderful in their own car crash kind of way. Vampire dance club, anyone? I don’t know what they were thinking. Also any time they Mickey Mouse the sound effects or laugh into a freeze frame. Grooooaaaaan.
The sheer goofiness is alternated with Very Serious Bizness. Every Callisto arc is fabulous. Every time we get a flashback to Evil Xena is fabulous. Gabrielle gets her ass kidnapped every few days and it is equal parts self-aware slapstick and actual dramahz.
Oh and the subtext. I did mention The Subtext, didn’t I? This was the late nineties, early aughts, so they unfortunately never got explicit, but there is no way the writers or actors were oblivious to the blunt hints they were throwing at the audience. Seriously. Every time Xena gets bathed by another woman, that’s got to be a euphemism. Every time she and Gabrielle act like a married couple? Every time they get jealous of each other’s male attention? Every time they actually kiss?
And of course one cannot praise Xena without praising the PURE FLIPTASTIC ACTION. She’s blessed by the god of war and she learned some sweet floating kung fu in China, but all that is hand-waving. I don’t care why this woman can defy all the known laws of physics and I don’t care. I want her somersaulting through the air, I want her scaling castle walls with a single bound, I want her fighting atop posts and on the edges of thin tree branches, and I want her stepping across men’s heads like a frog across lily ponds.