Saturday, 20 March 2010

Legend of the Seeker - just no fun!

Given the number of excellent and/or promising shows that don't get renewed or, worse, aren't even allowed to make it to the end of their first season, I'm frequently amazed at the shows which do get a chance at a second or third series. Shows like The Legend of the Seeker.

Now, don't get me wrong. I do watch the show and I'm glad it's there because, let's face it, there's little enough sword and sorcery on TV, but - subjected to any kind of serious scrutiny - it's not exactly riveting stuff. Certainly no better than any one of a dozen shows that have been cancelled; shows like The Bionic Woman or My Own Worst Enemy or the infinitely superior Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

It's not that there's anything especially bad about The Legend of the Seeker, it's just that there's nothing especially good about it, either. The plot is routine fantasy fare: a young man of apparently humble origins (Richard Cypher - and, yes, that really is the hero's last name!) discovers he has a past shrouded in mystery and a destiny to save the kingdom from all manner of nasty monsters and, of course, a bloodthirsty tyrant. He is aided in his quest by a wizard (Zeddicus) and the obligatory attractive female, a "Confessor" (effectively a warrior-nun) called Kahlan.

The individual episodes hang tenuously from this hackneyed plot but most add little to it. They constitute, instead, a series of unrelated adventures linked, like the episodes in a 1960s Western, only by the fact that they feature the same lead characters. The acting is uninspired but acceptable, the writing distinctly average and the special effects - whilst falling far short of what we've come to expect in the post-LotR/Matrix world - are not too bad considering the show has to make-do with a TV budget. Crowd scenes rarely seem to include more than a dozen people and the sets bear a remarkable similarity from one isolated village or castle to the next. It is, in short, a nearly show.

It's nearly good. It has a number of elements that nearly work but, somehow, neither the plot nor the characters have enough of a spark about them to make it more than the TV equivalent of those lacklustre movies based on Dungeon Siege or Dungeons and Dragons. So what's missing?

The series is, of course, produced by Sam Raimi and therein, I think, lies the answer. Although he may have made his name with big screen horror features, the success of those films has surely been eclipsed by Raimi's two huge TV hits, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. So what made those two shows such compulsive viewing, when The Legend of the Seeker is so eminently missable?

In a word: "humour". Now, fantasy doesn't have to be humourous. Fans of the sword and sorcery genre (and I do count myself among them!) will be well aware of the fact that, before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies dragged it kicking and screaming into the mainstream, virtually every fantasy film was a self-conscious spoof, the actors hamming it up, as if embarrassed to be seen slumming it in such low-brow fare.

To make a serious fantasy epic, however, you do need a budget large enough to hire only the best actors, the best writers and the best special effects team in the business. If you don't have the budget for those (and what TV series does?!) then you need to find something else to make up for it. Xena and Hercules did. They had leads who were not cookie-cutter stereotypes, excitable but engaging sidekicks and a self-mocking but affectionate approach to the shows' premise.

I doubt that Kevin Sorbo is a better an actor than Craig Horner but he played Hercules as a lovable lug, making him endearing in a way that Richard Cypher (oh, that name!) simply ... isn't. The appeal of Xena (despite what the tabloids may want us to believe) wasn't Lucy Lawless's leather-clad physique, it was that sparkle in her eye and the smile that said she was going to enjoy teaching a lesson to the latest fool who'd dared to challenge her. In short, they had "personality"! The shows stopped short of being parodies of the genre (usually!), but they weren't afraid to have fun with it either.

And that, I think, is what's missing from The Legend of the Seeker. It doesn't have the budget to take itself as seriously as it does and so it needs Sam Raimi to inject something else. A sense of personality. A sense of fun!

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