Comparison With Other Action-Adventure-Fantasy Series The sad thing about the problems in Xena's third season is that they might easily have been avoided. Other television series involving action, adventure, and the supernatural have demonstrated that it is possible, even after several seasons on air, to produce stories that are well-written, entertaining, and thought-provoking.
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys HTLJ had, generally, a very strong showing in its fourth season. Despite the absence of Kevin Sorbo from several episodes due to a shoulder aneurysm, the 1997-1998 season featured a number of excellent stories, including some of the best seen on the show to date.
Xena and Herc show a different side in STRANGER IN A STRANGE WORLD.
 The most outstanding episode of the season, indeed, of the entire series, is the alternate-universe story STRANGER IN A STRANGE WORLD (H64/405). Iolaus is captured and taken through a mysterious vortex into a parallel world, where all the characters are the opposite of their familiar counterparts. Hercules is a tyrant, Iolaus is a spineless coward, Ares is the god of love, Aphrodite is a prude, and Joxer is a quick-thinking rebel. The story unfolds as Iolaus tries to survive in his new environment, and Hercules devises a way to get his friend back. In the midst of this confusion, word comes that Zeus is dying. The story balances all these details and two sets of characters without dropping a nuance. The dialogue is deft, the balance of humor and drama handled superbly, and the entire cast gives wonderful performances.
 A number of details established in STRANGER IN A STRANGE WORLD (H64/405) carry over into ARMAGEDDON NOW (H72,73/413,414). Despite inconsistencies regarding Callisto, ARMAGEDDON is a powerful story that incorporates many elements from the collective Hercules-Xena mythology, and provides a chilling look at a world in which Hercules is never born. The episode's biggest mistake is probably the attempt to incorporate it into the larger Dahak arc. As an alternate-timeline story, ARMAGEDDON NOW could have stood very well on its own.
 In addition to these two exceptional stories, the fourth season also features HERO'S HEART (H61/402), a tour de force for Michael Hurst, TWO MEN AND A BABY (H65/406), and three deliriously funny comedies: ...AND FANCY FREE (H67/408), MEN IN PINK (H71/412), and YES VIRGINIA, THERE IS A HERCULES (H74/415). The two-part story PORKULES [H75/416)]/ONE FOWL DAY [H76/417)] also proves surprisingly well-done. These episodes provide season highlights, while solid ventures such as PRODIGAL SISTER (H66/407), IF I HAD A HAMMER (H68/409), MY FAIR CUPCAKE (H77/418), WAR WOUNDS (H78/419), and REUNION (H81/422) fill out the viewing schedule. The series only stumbled with a handful of stories, most of them the painfully embarrassing YOUNG HERCULES episodes.
 The strength of the better stories lies in the scripts. At the core of each episode is a well-written plot, with something dramatically at stake. Everyone acts consistently in character, yet there is still opportunity for learning and growth. No characters are contorted or cheapened to make an unlikely scenario seem more plausible. All decisions are grounded within the characters, and within the circumstances of the plot.
 The absence of Sorbo led to good, creative use of the supporting cast. Neither Hercules nor Iolaus appear in MEN IN PINK (H71/412) (though Michael Hurst appears as the Widow Twanky), but Autolycus (Bruce Campbell) and Salmoneus (Robert Trebor) carry the story so well that the absence of the lead characters barely makes a difference. The 'clip' episode, YES, VIRGINIA... (H74/415) features nearly the entire cast playing the Renaissance Productions staff, a concept that might well have gone overboard into slapstick. But restraint is shown, and the episode proves highly entertaining. Hercules is turned into a pig in PORKULES (H75/416). Sorbo provides charming voice-overs, while Hurst and Campbell handle the action. In ONE FOWL DAY (H76/417), the focus is again on Iolaus and Autolycus. Hercules spends most of the story squiring around the newly-human Kathryn (played by Alexandra Tydings).
 One drastic difference from third-season Xena is that villains are allowed to be intelligent on Hercules. The gods - Ares, Callisto, Apollo, Hera, Discord - are, for the most part, a nasty, shallow, self-centered bunch. Hercules and his friends have to deal with the gods as best they can, and there is little dumbing down of the immortals. Hercules can hold his own against Ares, but Autolycus and Iolaus fare much worse [ONE FOWL DAY (H76/417)]. Iolaus stands little chance against Callisto and Ares [ARMAGEDDON NOW (H72,73/413,414)]. The powerful mortal woman Atalanta is tossed like a ragdoll by the diminutive Discord [IF I HAD A HAMMER (H68/409)]. Even Hercules almost meets his match when he goes up against Hera in REUNION (H81/422), the season finale.
 Because the characters, heroes and villains both, are allowed to remain true to themselves, the stories unfold with conviction. Some episodes feature both Hercules and Iolaus, some only one or the other, and some focus more on a recurring character. These separations give the characters some dramatic breathing space and allow them to grow as individuals. The series is not afraid to poke fun at itself, but the comedy rarely ventures into slapstick. Despite his demi-godhood status, Hercules remains warm, likable, and human. There is never a sense he believes himself morally superior to anyone, even his enemies.
 The series is not without its problems. Like Xena, there is a frustrating lack of a larger picture, as well as inconsistencies with backstories established in earlier episodes. There also seems to be a tendency of leaning more toward convenience than logic in the episode plots. The omission of Iphicles from Alcmene's deathbed in TWILIGHT (H79/420) is one glaring example. Overall, however, Hercules seemed sure of its footing in its fourth season. One can only hope this also holds true of the fifth.
Scully and Mulder, dyanamic duo.
 The X-Files (TV, 1993-present) shares a number of similarities with Hercules and Xena: the core of the show is a strong relationship between two characters (FBI Agents Fox Mulder [David Duchovny] and Dana Scully [Gillian Anderson]) who deal weekly with a wide array of otherworldly phenomena, as well as more ordinary human malfeasance. The pair often works alone against intimidating odds, frequently with their own lives (or careers) at stake. There is a recurring cast of engaging characters, about whom the audience has learned more since the series' inception. Some episodes are self-contained, others form part of the larger "government conspiracy" arc (which can be broken into smaller sub-arcs, such as the episodes dealing with Scully's abduction). Most episodes are fairly dramatic in nature, but a good deal of humor breaks the tension and keeps the show from becoming moribund.
 The series has won both a fanatical cult following and a broader mainstream audience due in large part to the quality of writing. Each season, there are easily six or eight high-impact episodes, often with repercussions that linger far beyond the original air date. In addition to these outstanding episodes, each season features a number of excellent stories. Even the average episode is of very solid quality. There have been a handful of uninteresting or gratuitously gory episodes, but for the most part, those are few and far between.
 The X-Files has maintained consistent characterizations throughout its five seasons. Each regular player has grown in ways both obvious and subtle. Mulder started the series as a believer in alien life, by the fifth season he is more cynical. Scully started as a skeptic, but through her experiences has grown to accept of the possibility of extra-terrestrials. The audience even sees the evolution of the two agents' spiritual beliefs, doubts, and crises of faith. Each change is rendered believably. New details that are revealed about Mulder's and Scully's personal lives never fail to be congruent with their already established backgrounds.
 The relationship between the two agents has strengthened and deepened since their meeting in the pilot episode. They have supported each other, challenged each other, and comforted each other when needed. The whole of their partnership is greater than the sum of its pieces. That such a relationship has been established with no overt romance between the two leads is a decided strength of the series. The love between the characters is shown in small but powerful expressions and gestures.
 Character development is evidenced in other players as well. Skinner, Mulder and Scully's immediate supervisor, began the series in an antagonistic role toward the pair, but over three or four seasons has become their ally. This change was made wholly plausible because it came about slowly, with key events in several episodes contributing toward the process. The Cigarette-Smoking Man, Mulder's greatest nemesis, started the series as a vague, sketchy outline who has become filled in season after season. Despite his machinations, certain episodes have revealed a painfully human side to him. Likewise, the mysterious shadow government has gradually come into light, where viewers can see shifting power struggles and personal agendas. Krycek, initially shown as little more than a cold-blooded assassin, now has motives that may prove more noble than when they were first revealed.
 After five seasons and a movie, the series is still going strong. The X-Files has suffered its share of dropped details and is famous for its loose ends. However, the fifth season and film made some efforts to tighten these up. The prospects for the next two seasons seem very good indeed.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
All the usual teenage problems, plus vampires, in BUFFY.
 Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV, 1997-present), the breakout hit from the Warner Brothers Network, features a young heroine destined to save the world, primarily from vampires, but also from a host of other supernatural baddies. Based on the Fran Rubel Kuzui 1992 film of the same name, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is caught between her duties as the "Chosen One" (or Slayer) who stops evil demons from re-taking the Earth and the normal high school pressures of schoolwork and social life.
 The show uses horror partly for its own sake and partly as a metaphor for the pitfalls of teenage life. A consistently ignored girl literally becomes invisible; an aggressively attractive older woman is actually an insectoid lifeform who eats her mates, and a young man desiring love fails to see that his new girl is a life-draining mummy. The movie missed its target slightly because of too much emphasis on comedy, but the series deftly blends drama, humor, character development, and witty dialogue. The stories examine the internal lives of the protagonist and her pals even while chronicling their adventures in saving the world (or the town, or each other).
 From the start, Buffy was both episodic and serial in nature. Most stories stand on their own, but undercurrents that carry from week to week enhance the experience for regular viewers. Buffy's friend Xander refers to a previous romantic disaster when he asks his new love if she is a preying mantis. A new Slayer (usually "chosen" only upon the death of the current one) appears in the second season, created when Buffy died (but was revived with CPR) at the end of season one. The show manages to keep track of many details that seem no more than interesting background color until they blossom into major plotlines. Fetching computer teacher Ms. Calendar is revealed as a spy sent by the gypsies who cursed reformed vampire Angel. Not a hint of Calendar's identity is given until necessary, yet in hindsight, it makes complete sense.
 Buffy wins its audience by maintaining a consistently strong dramatic arc. Things happen to people, and they are changed forever. Angel defeats his curse, but becomes a terrible villain who spends the rest of the season hunting Buffy's friends and family. Xander starts dating Cordelia, and Willow, who is enamored of him, resents this. Not only are the characters consistent, they act in plausible ways. Jealousy, anger, love, devotion - all of these elements, and more - are offered up on a weekly basis and form the underlying motivations of the characters. That they act like ordinary people only makes them easier to watch and relate to, and that explains much of Buffy's success.
Conclusion The weaknesses in the writing in XWP's third season are truly surprising, given the strength of the episodes in seasons one and two. The earlier stories were generally very solid, the characters acted believably, and the plots did not need to be extravagant in order to be effective.
 THE DEBT (52,53/306/307) is often pointed to by fans as a highlight of the third season and deservedly so. This fine drama incorporates a strong plot with connections to the show's larger mythology. The performances by the cast are outstanding. The directing, music, sets, and costumes are all stellar. However, the heart of THE DEBT's success lies in the story. There is something at stake emotionally. The characters are all fully-realized. The conflict between Xena and Gabrielle arises from their difference in ideology. The villain (Ming T'ien) is smart, effective, and not easily outwitted. The plot grows directly out of DESTINY (212/36) and advances logically from point to point. Chinese history and philosophy are skillfully woven into the story to create a larger backdrop. The acting, costumes, sets, music, and cinematography would not be nearly as effective without the solid foundation provided by a well-conceived plot.
 The lesson provided by THE DEBT (52,53/306,307) - and also by the fourth season of Hercules, by The X-Files, and by Buffy - is that effective storytelling is at the heart of any television series. So many third season XWP episodes aim to be large, extravagant productions. Unfortunately, many of these episodes stumble because too much attention is paid to external trappings, and not enough to the fundamentals of plot and character. Big is not always better. All the witty dialogue, beautiful costumes and sets, and impressive effects cannot compensate for the lack of a good story.
AcknowledgmentsSpecial thanks to: AmberH, Ed Baker, Suzanne Klerks, Lessa, Tasha Mohr, Mich Price, Sophia Shultz, and everyone else who provided input and feedback for this article.
ReferencesBowker, John (Ed.). The Oxford Dictionary Of World Religions. Oxford Press, 1997.
Rudnick, Bret. 'An Interview with Kevin Smith.' Whoosh! On-Line Edition, Issue 10, July 1997.
BiographyE. A. Week
If you're riding public transportation in Boston and hear a maniacal cackle of laughter, it's not the Boston Strangler. It's just E.A. Week thinking about Hercules or Xena. E.A. "discovered" both shows in the spring of 1997 and quickly became a hard-core nutball. She enjoys writing fan fiction and revels in creating silly stories about the Herk-Xenaverse. Her work can be found at Tom's Xena Page and Lessa's Smithsonian Page. She has also contributed to traditional 'zines: The View From Olympus, By the Sword of Ares 2 and The Daily Muse (forthcoming). In mundane life, E.A. holds a master's degree, is gainfully employed, and an avid swimmer. When not otherwise occupied, she devotes her time to reviving the Cult of Ares for the 21st century. Feel free to leave a donation on your way out.
Favorite episode: TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (32/208)
Favorite line: Ares: "What is this infernal throbbing in my head?" TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (32/208)
First episode seen: GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (28/204)
Least favorite episode: THE DELIVERER (50/304), ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313).
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