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"Hercules": A myth you don't want to miss
Seattle Times TV critic
Why tune to a maudlin finale for another show that should have gone off the air two years ago when you can watch myth, murder and a Greek stud-muffin?
This evening at 9, CBS comic mainstay "Everybody Loves Raymond" takes its final bow. It'll be preceded at 8 by the traditional behind-the-scenes special, with reflections from the cast and producers on how it feels to leave the series after nine seasons.
Here's how it feels: phew. "Raymond" was a once-great show that overstayed its creative apex, just like "Friends." Unlike "Friends," it doesn't promise a cliffhanger conclusion.
And that's why tonight at 8, I'll be watching the NBC movie "Hercules." It's a delightfully dark and sexy Grade B costume drama that tries to stick to the original legend, but can't help having fun.
"Hercules" comes from Hallmark Entertainment producer Robert Halmi Sr., whose credits include "Gulliver's Travels," "Merlin" and "Dinotopia." His specialty is big projects, and that's fortunate, because "Hercules" is one of the more whopping bio-epics.
On the debit side, Halmi also oversaw the botched adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's "Legend of EarthSea." Before getting your fantasy knickers in a knot, though, be assured that "Hercules" has a different screenwriter.
Besides, the cast is great, and they fling themselves wholeheartedly into their roles. Former James Bond Timothy Dalton is Hercules' father, Amphitryon. (More on that technicality in a moment.) Elizabeth Perkins is mother Alcmene. Terrific young actress Leelee Sobieski plays Hercules' second wife, Deianeira.
Best of all, it's got Sean Astin as Hercules' wise friend and instructor, Linus. "Lord of the Rings," "Goonies" forever! A movie with Sean Astin is like a night passed with a clever, wry and slightly debauched buddy from college.
Still, "Hercules" falls apart if the hero doesn't do his job. That task falls to newcomer Paul Telfer, and I think he presents just the right mix of hot-headed impetuousness and naive sincerity.
Let's face it: Hercules was not the sharpest spear in the ranks of Greek mythology. He lost his temper, drank and did lots of regrettable things. An actor portraying Hercules has to offer a fair amount of charm to compensate, and Telfer does. Move over, Kevin Sorbo.
Besides, you can't blame Hercules. When Zeus disguises himself as Amphitryon and rapes Alcmene one dark night and makes her pregnant, she's not exactly thrilled.
Later that same evening, Amphitryon makes love to his wife. The result of all this is twins with different dads — a Jerry Springer episode by way of Edith Hamilton. From this point forward, Hercules often will be a pawn in the battles among gods and humans.
The opening of NBC's atmospheric version efficiently sets up the story and main characters. Greek myth can often be oversimplified, but screenwriter Charles Pogue manages to layer in all the rivalries, jealousies and conflicted feelings that later play out.
The production is handsome. There are lots of ways to dress this tale, and in the first half at least, "Hercules" resembles a scarier "Midsummer Night's Dream," enchanted and feverish and as casually populated with odd beings as Mercer Street at 2 a.m.
Halmi always has been fussy about special effects, and the CGI used here is nicely integrated. The makeup and design folks have not abused the cornucopia of satyrs, warriors and nymphs on hand, although Sobieski is a little overgilded for my taste.
Purists will be a bit disappointed that certain parts of "Hercules" have been trimmed. Scholarly sources tell us he had to perform 12 heroic labors over 12 years to atone for murdering his first wife and children. Tonight's movie is a bit fuzzier: Is it 10?
Of course, other travails await Hercules, even after he finally marries Deianeira. Her welcome-home present is a lulu. (Hint: Never take shopping advice from a centaur.)
The good news is that Hercules will get to be a god. That may seem like scant compensation for a lifetime of cleaning stables, killing monsters and wearing uncomfortable clothes, not to mention a complete lack of mother-love.
But "Hercules' " spills are our thrills. Originally intended to be a miniseries, tonight's three-hour version delivers guilty pleasure without demanding too much time — a trend I'd like to see more of during sweeps.
"Raymond" reduxSpeaking of trends: In its heyday, "Everybody Loves Raymond" defied every oracle who said traditional situation comedy was dead. It did so with impeccable timing, amazing cast chemistry and a piercing recognition of the animosity that lies beneath the surface of family life.
For that honesty and for the seven years that the series was very good, I salute Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, Brad Garrett, Doris Roberts, Peter Boyle and executive producer and co-creator Phil Rosenthal.
Kay McFadden: email@example.com
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company