[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
Missing those gay-bar lovefests where everyone roared every time Gabrielle sorta kinda proved to be more than just Xena's traveling companion? Saddened by the beefcake decline now that Hercules, the Legendary Journeys has completed its labors? Not to worry. Syndicated programmers care. They would also like you to know that as long as red-blooded viewers crave cleavage, really cute guys, and dime-store special effects, someone out there (most recently an international production team from Montreal and Queensland, Australia) will turn out reams of product, shown on multiple networks at any hour of the night and day, some of which might even satisfy you. Both BeastMaster (spun off from a 1982 swords-and-furs quickie) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (no relation to Spielberg's threadbare Jurassic Park sequel) offer the same cheapo fun as, if less chewy subtext than, the aforementioned barbarians. On the other hand, the country that invented syndication isn't holding down the fort so well: Clueless, a hapless retread spun off from the agile Alicia Silverstone star vehicle, reeks with the desperation of career stasis.
It would be silly to evaluate shows like these on the grounds of plausibility, character development, or originality. By design, they're everything you've ever seen before, period. Audiences in 1915, accustomed to The Perils of Pauline, would understand them instantly. (Sample dialogue: "These natives are friendly." Arrows thunk into treasure chest. "Yeah, right!") In order to make them salable to as many countries as possible, the shows offer no contemporary references of any kind, save for the characters' annoying tendency to talk about their feelings. (A mustache-twirl or simple motivation does the trick in pulp, and in fact we don't really care much if the villain--or for that matter the hero--has intimacy issues attributable to childhood traumas.) Instead, let's evaluate them by means of the basic indices of syndicated programming, which I have titrated from hours of consideration. Readers who dislike these standards are welcome to offer their own; pulp is, after all, about satisfying the audience's desires.
First, Bodaciousness, a unisex category. After Hercules broke ground in its openly homoerotic adoration of Kevin Sorbo's chiseled torso and bulging thighs, any respectable show must offer tidbits to both sexes rather than just the canonical teenage male. What separates Daniel Goddard of BeastMaster from the hardbody pack is a soulful blade of a face, curtained by stringy hair, that makes him look like a French peasant revolutionary--a really well-defined, and consistently shirtless, French peasant revolutionary, admittedly, but one whose depth offers opportunities to register existential pain. The show gets extra points for having his incompetent sidekick, and quasi boy toy, Tao (Jackson Paine), be both biracial and a cutie, though I haven't yet heard of any cults surrounding him. There is also a sorceress partial to cleavage-baring nightgowns, and a forest spirit (who looks remarkably like Reese Witherspoon and talks like a petulant mall rat) who suits up in this kind of tight viny thing.
Clueless deals with body issues in a healthy pre-teen/pre-sexual way, showing off its characters' unthreatening buffness fairly often (they live in California) but never presenting, say, a Tori Spelling implant-monster. Star Rachel Blanchard's dewy innocence mimics the charm that made Silverstone famous, but I do find it sad that the careers of the actors playing both best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash, now 35) and sometime-boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison) have stagnated since their breakthroughs.
On The Lost World the stars are more generically attractive. Blond jungle-babe Veronica (Jennifer O'Dell), who favors leather bikinis for dinosaur-hunting, looks and talks like a Baywatch lifeguard drawn out to sea by a really strong rip tide. Rachel Blakely does a low-rent Joan Collins as the tempestuous and uncertainly accented Marguerite. The guys (Will Snow and David Orth), divided symmetrically into dark- and light-haired, don't distinguish themselves either, and mad scientist Professor Challenger (Peter McCauley) looks disappointingly like a saner Christopher Lloyd (in a role first played by Wallace Beery in 1925) instead of a stalwart Veronican. Give this round to BeastMaster.
Next, the classic Monsters category. The dinosaurs on The Lost World have a great fakey clumsiness (you can pretty much see the wires from which the pterodactyls dangle), but the show is pretty stingy with them. I mean, twice an hour? BeastMaster aims even lower. We mostly see the BeastMaster's posse (two ferrets, a tiger, and a hawk) doing their thing without him (e.g. the hawk turns circles in the sky), and the big moments tend to feature him dropping to one knee, looking the possibly hostile animal in question soberly in the eye, and...having a conversation. Goddard does, however, wrestle manfully with a snake looped lazily around his shoulders, which I imagine is supposed to be choking him. That's the spirit!
Clueless wins with an array of familiar faces (Julie Brown, Wallace Shawn, Tim Conway) who locate the show in a timeless history of standard character-actor bits: mean substitute teacher, inept repair guy, and so on. Why Jonathan Winters hasn't seized his chance, I couldn't say.
Finally, there's Fun, some incalculable amalgam of entertainment value, cheese, and corn that is occasionally synonymous with "good." You know it when you see it. BeastMaster tries the occasional groovy camera angle, and its producers' refusal to disguise the soundstage's back wall in "jungle" scenes is a nice avant-blah touch, but the show doesn't pack an hour's worth of thrills. Too often, it boils down to a buff Dr. Doolittle talking to the animals--whose voices we don't even hear! Clueless makes me sad. It's not very funny; everyone in it seems to be hoping their agents are calling their cell phones and getting them the hell out of there. Worst of all, it tramples the memory of one of the last decade's sweetest and cleverest teen movies.
The winner is The Lost World, which could amass a Trek-ish cult if anyone gave it a chance. The effects are nicely fake, the fight scenes choreographed with adorable ineptitude, the plotlines entertaining and unaffected: It's a welcome example of the unpretentious mass entertainment that has put butts in seats for a century.
Correction published 7/11/2001:
"Post-Xena Programming" contained two factual errors about The Lost World: Jennifer O'Dell (not O'Neill) plays Veronica (not Victoria). The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the errors.
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