It’s not unusual for a successful TV show to try to cash in by producing another, similar series, but it is surprising that the spin-off from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, is so shrewdly done, while David Hasselhoff’s Baywatch successor, Baywatch Nights, is so clueless.
Followers of the popular syndicated hour Hercules know that the warrior princess Xena, played by the delightfully monikered Lucy Lawless, used to be one of the fiercest foes of Kevin Sorbo’s mythical hero. Regular viewers also know that Hercules has turned out to be one of the most self-aware of junk television shows; overseen by executive producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert (Darkman, American Gothic), Hercules has attracted a large following of kids, who like the comic-book-style action scenes, as well as adults, who appreciate the joke of using modern slang in an ancient-times context.
Lawless’ Xena — ”a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle,” as Xena’s opening credits have it — became a fan favorite breakout character on Hercules. But how to turn her into enough of a sympathetic protagonist to justify her own show? Easy: She expressed a twinge of remorse about the havoc she had wreaked plundering villages and coldcocking peasants, and so she forswore her ruthless ways and started helping people rather than exploiting them.
Xena is Wonder Woman on steroids, and Lawless — with her dark bangs, moon face, light blue eyes, and small, grim smiles — plays the warrior princess with barely concealed delight. The fight scenes are shot like mini-martial-arts movies, with flying fists and vicious leg kicks, sped-up editing and absurdly exaggerated leaps and flips. Xena even gives out with a high-pitched yip (”Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!”) when she moves in for the kill. As if all this weren’t enough, Xena has a special weapon — a sort of stainless-steel-bladed Frisbee that she tosses to slice up a foe, and that comes back to her like a boomerang. If I were a 10-year-old, I’d bite anyone who tried to keep me away from an episode of Xena.
For non-10-year-olds, though, the dialogue in Xena is a stitch. Confronted by a blind, one-eyed giant (there’s a blur of flesh where his eyes should be) who’s armed with a sledgehammer, Xena sends him tumbling. ”You ought to go into a new line of work,” she says saucily. ”Like what?” grumbles the flattened enemy. ”I’m a blind Cyclops, for heaven’s sake!”
They could use a blind Cyclops or two on Baywatch Nights — anything to make this predictable show more interesting. The premise is that David Hasselhoff’s lifeguard Mitch Buchannon has gone into business with Baywatch pal Garner Ellerbee (GregAlan Williams) in a detective agency; their third partner is Ryan McBride (played by Angie Harmon).
I guess the phenomenal success of Baywatch has deluded Hasselhoff into thinking that he — rather than that show’s undulating profusion of crimson bathing suits — is what makes the series so popular. As a result, Nights is wall-to-wall Mitch Buchannon; Garner and Ryan barely even register as supporting characters. Hasselhoff also provides a lot of hard-boiled-cliché voice-over narration (”[She] had something to do with fate — as in fatal…”). There are lots of car chases and shoot-outs adorning plots that seem lifted from old scripts for Mannix. His faith in old-fashioned television formulas is touching, if utterly unfounded. Hasselhoff has said that if Nights is a hit, he’ll fade into the background of Baywatch (no more sand jogging for this middle-aged multimillionaire) and concentrate on his fledgling detective role.
Xena has done a few crossover episodes with Hercules. Maybe she should pay a visit to Baywatch Nights, scream a few Yi-yi-yi-yi-yis, and shake Hasselhoff out of his ego stupor. B+