That television is largely styrofoam peanuts, old sweatsocks and banana peels is debated by no one; even friends of the medium, praising the best it has to offer, tend to point out how much better that best is than what surrounds it. It would be astonishing if it were otherwise. Not counting pay-per-view and the networks that strictly recycle theatrical features, there are something like 80 channels on my cable system; with every one of them running around the clock, that makes nearly 2,000 hours of TV real estate to fill every day -- enough time, in a single rotation of the Earth, to air in its entirety the combined directorial output of Wilder, Sturges (Preston and John), Hitchcock, Truffaut, Fellini, Godard, De Mille, Altman, Huston, Welles, Scorsese, Kubrick, Minnelli, Hawks, Cukor, Stevens, Capra, Renoir, BuÃ±uel, John Ford and Woody Allen; or every single episode of I Love Lucy, The Phil Silvers Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Spy, M*A*S*H, Cheers, The Rockford Files, Homicide: Life on the Street, Hill Street Blues, The Wonder Years, Roseanne, Seinfeld, Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, even counting commercials. Inside of a week or two, everything ever filmed worth watching might be broadcast. And then what? Given that there is insufficient talent, or executive will, or money, to fill even the prime time of the six broadcast networks with intelligent original programs, such a staggering temporal expanse will necessarily be occupied largely by the recycled and the less good.
The less good was, of course, a feature of the old studio systems, which divided its product in A-level and more quickly and cheaply made B-pictures (and grades sometimes lower than that) in order to supply the heavy, pre-TV demand for new product. Television from its beginning adopted the economies, schedules and genres of B-pics, and made at times a virtue of those limitations -- Perry Mason, NYPD (not to be confused with the current Blue edition), The Twilight Zone were great shoestring dramas quite in the spirit of the B's; The X-Files is a particularly splendid recent example of the B ethic of scaring you with cleverness rather than special effects.
In the modern televerse, the spirit of the B's shines most brightly on cable networks like USA (home of La Femme Nikita), Ted Turner's not-flagship TBS Superstation ("A 747 loaded with passengers./A bomb loaded with nerve gas./A pilot with . . . Nowhere To Land," runs a promo line for its latest original film) and especially in the realm of syndication. A show like this season's syndicated Relic Hunter, with Tia Carrere of Wayne's World fame as a chick Indiana Jones, traces its roots straight back to the same Saturday morning movie serials that inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark, but is of course much, much closer to the original in terms of budget and sophistication and the Buster Crabbe attitudes of its comely star.
As a sexy professor of ancient history who moonlights as a world-traveling seeker after lost amulets and icons (it does sound familiar, doesn't it?), Carrere -- an exotic of Hawaiian, Chinese, Spanish and Filipino ancestry -- is a perfectly constituted pulp heroine, good-looking, athletic and able to make a face that says "I'm worried" and "I'm tough" (and occasionally "I'm available") at the same time. Notwithstanding that this is nominally an "action" show, she doesn't really have to do much at all -- one has the feeling that at no point in the production of this pokey little series does anyone break a sweat -- but she does all she has to with evident zeal. Christien Anholt, an overqualified British stage actor, takes the Denholm Elliott role of bumbling, bookish sidekick, with the difference that, this being television, he's young and good-looking.
The current king of this hill is Sam Raimi, whose now-sometime respectable film career was launched by the indie shocker The Evil Dead and its two fabulously baroque sequels and who, in addition to his big-screen work (Spider-Man is on his plate currently), has positioned himself as the Roger Corman or Samuel Z. Arkoff or Pietro Francisci of syndicated television. It was Raimi who blew the dust off the Hercules franchise, unexploited since Steve Reeves hung up his toga, with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. That begat Xena: Warrior Princess and a slew of action-adventure knockoffs featuring mythic heroes with 20th-century hair and attitudes and well-built heroines in skimpy outfits (or outfits that suggest skimpiness without actually being all that skimpy). Raimi created as well the less successful network shows Spy Game and M.A.N.T.I.S., about a black superhero. He's a genre man, clean through.
Raimi's latest series, the sci-fi chopsocky Cleopatra 2525, cops the Terminator scenario of humanity driven underground by crafty machines -- here big flying bugs called "Baileys." Into this world she never made, to use a phrase popular in Marvel Comics, comes stripper Jennifer Sky (the titular Cleopatra), awakened after half a millennium from the customary cryogenic suspension -- she'd lapsed into a coma during otherwise successful breast-implant surgery -- by a couple of bodacious guerrilla-babes (Gina Torres and Victoria Pratt) trying to reclaim Earth's surface from robotkind. Together they form a futuristic Charlie's Angels, in which equation Cleo roughly equals Farrah Fawcett-Majors. (There are a Charlie and a Bosley, too, in the form of a disembodied voice -- called Voice -- and a not-evil robot factotum, called Mauser.) Sci-fi fans will find enough plot to get picky about, but practically speaking the narrative is only an excuse for things to go boom, jokes to be cracked, and the women to kick serious ass in the Xena/Buffy mode while, as traditional, not wearing many clothes. If you need to know more than that, this show is probably not for you.
Paired with Cleopatra 2525 (only half an hour long, and the better for it) in an "action block" is another Raimi production, Jack of All Trades, starring his old compadre Bruce Campbell -- the flamboyant star and co-producer of the Evil Dead films, and like most of the other actors in these two series a vet of Xena and/or Hercules. Like those shows, it films in New Zealand, which here stands for the East Indian island of Pulau Pulau, in the year 1801, where American spy Campbell has been sent by Thomas Jefferson (who "still owes me a case of bourbon") to thwart the local imperial advances of Napoleon. (The French are the last people on Earth Americans feel it is allowable to hate, and I expect we are going to hang on to that as long as we can.) Angela Dotchin is the boss-fox British secret agent/scientist with whom he's partnered -- did someone say "prickly"? It is a comedy with fisticuffs and dueling, a low comedy, a burlesque -- Napoleon is played by Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer -- somewhat in the vein of Campbell's last starring series, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., with a touch of The Wild Wild West, Get Smart and, of all things, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. "I must know who you are!" cries one of those bad Frenchmen to Campbell, disguised as local folk hero the Daring Dragoon. "I'm the itch you can't scratch," says Campbell, a man who even in mufti looks like he stepped out of the pages of a comic book. "The gas you can't pass." And that's about the size of it. Here again, it's not a show to examine too carefully -- the history is bunk, the humor shopworn, the premise arbitrary. But as a 10-year-old I'd have been as all over this as I once was over The Bowery Boys and F Troop; and while I don't expect I'll ever go out of my way to watch either of these shows again, I respect them on their own low terms. Their quality is almost tautological -- they are what they are. And that's all that they are.
© Robert Lloyd 2000 and 2011