From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Sofa Sunday: Young Hercules

Many years ago, TV producers Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi looked at each other and said, “You know what would make an awesome TV series? Hercules! Mythology and adventure and the love of a cousin for his shorter, tow-headed cousin. It’ll be awesome!”

Okay, so maybe it didn’t go quite like that. There were some made-for-TV movies, first. Then, in 1995, we got to see Kevin Sorbo prancing around New Zealand Greece with his shirt off. Yes, that got old fast, but nevermind! That’s only the first part of the story.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was actually a pretty popular show and rekindled people’s interest in that old story about one of the more famous semi-divine sons of Zeus. A few years later Disney released their animated Hercules — perhaps not solely because of the show, but the timing always struck me as synchronicitous.

Then, in September 1998, a show premiered during the after-school viewing block aimed at tweens and young teens chronicling the life and times of Hercules when he was in school with his chums. What was this show called? Young Hercules? Hercules: The Animated Series?

The answer: both. because it was actually two shows. One based on the Disney movie, the other based on the Raimi/Tapert incarnation.

Premise Fight!!

Both shows had their annoyances and their merits. The Disney cartoon kept the fun elements of the movie, including the singing muses, and filled Herc’s school with other characters from mythology: Cassandra (the seer who was famously raped as Troy fell and later killed by Clytemnestra… this wasn’t in the cartoon) and Icarus (flew too close to the sun, wax wings melted) make for funny best friends, Adonis and Helen (of Troy, yes) make for decent popular kids, and Medusa even shows up at one point… in a wig. This show wasn’t as well written or imaginative as Aladdin‘s series, but wasn’t as saccharine and annoying as The Little Mermaid show. (Yes, I watched all of these. I was bored and there was no Cartoon Network.)

Young Hercules was technically in canon with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and so his two best friends in school were the same ones from his adult years: Iolaus and Jason (the Argonaut, yes). There was also a young woman in the academy that eventually became part of their circle: Lilith. I don’t think her character was mentioned in the regular Hercules show until after Young Hercules aired. Young Hercules faced a lot of the same problems Old Hercules did (with the exception of arthritis and being overshadowed by the sexy Lucy Lawless) — his brother Ares hated him, his father’s wife Hera hated him more, people were always attacking and stuff — and had some new challenges… like homework.

As I said, both shows premiered around the same time and were vying for the same audience. Since both were syndicated, they might have even shown opposite each other in some markets. While Disney’s Hercules had a built in audience — namely any kid who was watching Disney Afternoon or One Saturday Morning — Young Hercules struggled to find one.

Hercules and Xena fans were legion, but perhaps not at home between 2 and 4PM on weekdays. (This was before DVRs, mind.) Even if they did watch the show, they may have been annoyed by how much the show fucked with canon. Changing personalities of gods and goddesses plus bringing in characters that had already been on Hercules or Xena and completely invalidating those episodes with their shenanigans many decades in the past. The only really good thing to come out of it was the character of Hephaestus, who moved onto regular Hercules and Xena later.

Kids may have come upon the show while looking for something to watch after school, but in a time slot dominated by cartoons a live-action show seemed a bit out of place. They probably didn’t know about the original Hercules and thus had no reason to care about the characters; or maybe were freaked out by the bad, bad effects employed whenever the centaur was on the screen. Plus, Young Hercules just wasn’t that good.

Hercules: The Animated Series only got 65 episodes — the limit Disney usually gives animated shows for some crazy reason — but was rerun on afternoon television for several years before being moved to the Disney channel and then Toon Disney. Young Hercules lasted on 1 season (50 episodes) and when it left the air, it stayed gone. There was a cute episode of Hercules not too long after when the actors who played young Herc, Iolaus, Jason and Lilith played new students at the Academy where old Herc comes with his equally old friends to solve some mystery or something. I admit, I wasn’t paying much attention.

You can watch all the episodes of Young Hercules on Hulu.com now:

As I said, it isn’t a great show, but it’s okay Sunday afternoon fare. Plus, the star is none other than Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling! Though his career seemed at its lowest at this point, I knew then that he would go on to do great things. After all, Ryan Reynolds started his career on a crappy afternoon teen drama and he turned out all right!

Also keep your eye on Chris Conrad, who plays Jason. That boy is one smoking hottie on this show, and he spends most of it showing his chest.

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