Dusting off my old schoolboy copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology in order to grapple with the goofy wonder that is Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, I came across this description of the ancient Greek hero: ''Intelligence did not figure largely in anything he did and was often conspicuously absent.'' Bingo! So Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, absurdly popular and supremely silly, turns out to be more faithful to mythological fact than I had expected.
If, as Hamilton suggests, Hercules was just a really strong dumb guy, this TV series has him down cold. As played by Kevin Sorbo, Hercules is the sort of muscular adventurer who, walking down a leafy lane, meets a little girl who suddenly turns into a two-headed monster. After slaying this creature, Hercules tells his friends about it this way: ''I met a kid on the road. She turned into a thing totally unprovoked.''
Hercules is meant to be a period piece; the opening-credit voice-over helpfully informs us that the show is set in ''a time...when the ancient gods were petty and cruel.'' (You know, as opposed to the present-day Welfare Reform: The Legendary Journeys.)
The series' centuries-of-old scenes are actually filmed in a rustic section of New Zealand. The makers of Hercules apparently don't want to slow down their viewing audience with the sort of stilted, formal language that's supposed to make historical epics seem realistic. (Remember the Steve Reeves Hercules movies of the '50s?) Thus, in this new version we have the traditional spectacle of ancients in sandals traveling by oxcart, but when they open their mouths, they're likely to say things such as, ''Boy, you sure know how to show a guy a good time,'' and ''Maybe it's time to hang up the old sandals.''
To be sure, much of this is supposed to be funny. The executive producers of Legendary Journeys are Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, the team responsible for such parodic genre films as The Evil Dead, Darkman, and Army of Darkness. Raimi and Tapert know that doing a sword-and-sandals show in the '90s demands a certain amount of winking irony. After all, what are shows like American Gladiators and Beach Clash if not genially decadent versions of overbuffed Greek gods and goddesses bulging and sweating for the amusement of us rabble? Previous pop-culture versions of Hercules were often cheap, fleshy epics surrounded by high-mindedness. Legendary Journeys, by contrast, features some pretty impressive special effects and unfettered horniness: In one episode, a scantily clad maiden is trussed up bondage-style. Hercules tries to rescue her, but he's gone temporarily blind (!), so when he reaches out, he almost accidently touches (tee-hee!) her breast.
There's nothing approaching wit in Hercules the humor is very broad, right down to the ludicrously inappropriate kung fu moves that these folks break into during fistfights. But the plentiful, exaggerated action scenes, combined with Sorbo's low-key, I-know-I'm-a-big-dumb-guy attitude, make this show a magnet for kids and a soothing brain-cooler for adults slack-jawed in front of their TVs.
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys has, in its debut season, proven to be the highest-rated new show in syndication, and this fall will yield a spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess. The fierce, wild-haired Xena, played by the wonderfully named Lucy Lawless, has been popping out of her breastplates all year on Hercules. She first appeared as a villain bent on killing Herc, but in recent episodes, she has become his ally nay, his soulmate: They smooch and hug and then, side by side, lop off the heads of vicious centaurs. The name Xena is nowhere to be found in my copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Were she still alive, Edith would probably groan at such an absurd character, but, come September, an awful lot of happy preadolescent boys are going to get hooked on Greek mythology. B