To all of you who grew up getting a forty-five minute weekly dose of Lucy Lawless crushing men’s skulls with her perfectly sculpted thighs, you have no idea how lucky you are. You, in your starry-eyed youth, were exposed to Xena long before anyone really grasped how bad the sets or the production value were, allowing you to absorb the show’s badassery and high potential for lesbian relationships without distraction. I grew up with non-geek parents who hated television, so my first experience with Xena was just a few weeks ago, as a tangential but awesome adventure on my personal quest for Karl Urban’s fine Kiwi ass.
For those of you who have forgotten (or have, by some great misfortune, never seen the show at all), Xena: Warrior Princess follows the loosely connected episodic adventures of the title character (played by Lucy Lawless) and her totally-not-girlfriend Gabrielle (played by Renee O’Connor) as they adventure around doing good and fighting evil against canvas scenery backdrops painted by interns. Apparently Xena killed a lot of people and destroyed a bunch of stuff at some point and is on a quest for atonement. Many episodes are based loosely on Greek mythology, but some other artistically interpreted cultural influences show up as well.
To this point I’ve only seen five episodes, but even the most ridiculous of them has made up for in hilarity what it lacked in drama. Since my television-viewing lenses have been colored by high-budget modern shows like Game of Thrones, I’m inclined to be brutal in pointing out how chintzy the Xena costumes were, how flimsy the sets looked, and how intense some of the overacting was, but the show’s sheer entertainment value more than makes up for all of the limitations of its time. Since it was intended to be a comedy as much as an action/adventure series, the awful 90’s-ness even works in the show’s favor from time to time: the horribly exaggerated roll-eyes-and-cross-arms-over-chest maneuver was a favorite of mine, enacted by nearly every character at some point. The word “awesome” was also used without sarcasm.
The dialogue was not always sterling either, but even compared to the few other female-led shows I’ve seen, the sexual tension between Xena and Gabrielle was palpable at all times. I’m not sure if this was intended to be queer representation that ended up censored, an accidental fluke of the writing, or possibly a sly part of the show’s attempt at sex appeal, along with the bikinis. Though leather corsets and battle bikinis remain a pet peeve of mine, I found that in Xena and Gabrielle’s case they bothered me substantially less than usual. Both characters had a confidence and an assertiveness that made me believe that they would have chosen battle bikinis themselves if given the option.
Regardless of the writers’ intentions, Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor had incredible on-screen chemistry to back up all of their rad eye candy fight scenes and make some of the flimsier episode premises feel slightly less distracting. “For Him the Bell Tolls” focused on Gabrielle and an idiotic sidekick character named Joxer, and even though it was meant to be funny, the lack of interaction between Xena and Gabrielle was sorely missed and the episode fell flat. “A Comedy of Eros” was equally ridiculous and even had a similar “love spell” premise, but Xena and Gabrielle’s attempts to save each other from misplaced infatuation were genuinely hilarious. Besides these obviously comedic elements, I also noticed a general lack of womanly pining and annoying romantic subplot. Refreshingly, Xena really is primarily about two women slaying baddies and taking names.
Xena was also an exemplary character in that she managed to be an ass-kicking action woman without entirely eschewing femininity. In “Callisto” particularly, Xena had an intimate talk with Gabrielle where she proved that she is deeply remorseful and sensitive in spite of her tough, cool demeanor. She has a lot of regrets about her choices and a lot of empathy, even towards her enemies. That same episode—which was blessed with a very intimidating female antagonist—also did nothing to dispel the notion that Xena and Gabrielle were secretly deeply in love with each other. There was no shortage of gentle touching to go with the emotional dialogue.
If you remember this show fondly but vaguely, I can assure you with reasonable confidence that you will not be disappointed by a re-watch. You might laugh for slightly different reasons, but the action is no less action-y and the characters are no less dynamic than they were in the mid to late 90’s. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to admire Lucy Lawless with virgin eyes while you all go about sighing wistfully and wondering—rightfully, in this case—why they don’t make shows like they used to.