What Renaissance Pictures did for geek TV

Would we have had Mutant Enemy or Bad Robot without Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert's Renaissance Pictures? David thinks not...

After 1992’s Army Of Darkness, another Sam Raimi feature film wouldn’t emerge in theatres for another three years. What Raimi did with the time in between is anybody’s guess – perhaps he wandered the world; maybe he dug through a peculiar collection of Spider-Man comics with most of the dialogue cut out. But what he certainly did with his Renaissance Pictures partners was bring to light a new frontier of genre TV (cue heroic music and a narrator saying, “This is the story of a time long ago – a time of myth and legend. When the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with suffering, only one man dared to challenge their power…“) 

While Hercules may be one of the most familiar templates for a hero in western history, what would make him particularly endearing this time around was the Renaissance Pictures approach to his character and the world around him. In addition to the way they took any genre they chose to explore seriously, Renaissance Pictures developed a tentative approach of when to not take things seriously. Though Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was their first success, it was not Renaissance Pictures’ first foray into television.

Dead by dawn…

Renaissance is the production company started and utilized by co-founders Raimi, Robert Tapert, and Bruce Campbell since their Evil Dead days. The 1981 cult-classic about college-aged students heading to a cabin in the woods was the beginning of a contemporary template. It’s the second film in the series, though, where the template that would come through in their TV work is most apparent. Raimi and his team fully invest themselves in the film’s genre aspect; as a horror film, Evil Dead 2 is as visceral as the first one. It’s also much more humorous, marked by dashes of slapstick.

 Before Raimi rounded out that series as a trilogy, he made a film called Darkman. The often somber story of a disfigured scientist and his disfigured psyche, it remains one of the more unique takes on a superhero movie. Although present, the humour is dialled back here as fits the story, which is also the case with Raimi’s and Renaissance’s first TV production – a two-hour pilot called M.A.N.T.I.S. about a superhero who happens to be African-American with, what is just a bit less uncommon than a film about a disfigured superhero, a largely black cast! 

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Its story co-credited to Raimi and Sam Hamm (who wrote screenplays for Tim Burton’s Batman movies), in M.A.N.T.I.S. the since under-used Carl Lumbly plays Dr. Miles Hawkins, a paraplegic scientist who creates an exo-skeletal suit with a mantis-shaped helmet that sends signals to his legs. The Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter System enables Hawkins to walk again – and also augments his physical abilities. With his support network and, in the vein of another character from a Renaissance Pictures production, a trusty Oldsmobile (except this one can fly), Dr Hawkins fights crime in fictional Ocean City. The M.A.N.T.I.S. TV movie was event viewing when I was a kid. I don’t recall the plot, but I’ve never forgotten especially enjoying what would ultimately be the pilot of a one-season series. It’s been noted that in those first two hours M.A.N.T.I.S. didn’t make its characters’ races incidental to their lives; that it tried to go for a sense of authenticity in its portrayal of black urban life. With what I can imagine was little first-hand experience to draw on, it’s still an admirable piece of work – even with, from my vantage point now, the two African students (in indigenous garbs) who work for M.A.N.T.I.S. in a capacity that seems like it was inspired by the help in Lee Falk’s very colonial The Phantom. 

 Past the pilot stage, Renaissance Pictures would not remain the show’s active producers. M.A.N.T.I.S. was retooled and more white supporting characters were added. In Greg Braxton’s 1994 article for the L.A. Times, he quotes then-Fox TV executive Bob Greenblatt as saying, “We wanted to bring out the fantasy element in the story. We didn’t want to do episodes about the human condition every week.”

Among the M.A.N.T.I.S. pilot-cast members dropped was Gina Torres, whom would go on to be a Renaissance Pictures fixture and later a Mutant Enemy one. In the same L.A. Times article, she said: “I felt we were doing something really unique in the pilot, something groundbreaking […] the high ratings of the pilot say to me that the formula worked.”

A time of myth and legend

Six months after the M.A.N.T.I.S. pilot, the first of five Hercules TV movies airs under Universal Television’s ‘Action Pack’ label. Produced by Renaissance Pictures, these movies starred Kevin Sorbo as the son of Zeus and Anthony Quinn as the king of gods himself. The production values were, for a TV series, extraordinarily distinct at the time. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was the first international production that took advantage of New Zealand’s vast wilderness as a stand-in for a western fantasy world. The special effects were good for the nineties, but, importantly, there were always enough practical elements (make-up, costumes) to offset the limited CGI.

Fight scenes were well-choreographed, and, in true Renaissance Pictures fashion, the use of the camera during them was dynamic. The producers of the show also fully embraced tapping into Greek/Roman mythology – this was apparent from the first movie’s opening narration, “This is the story of a time long ago – a time of myth and legend…” – told in a reverent tone. 

From Hercules And The Amazon Women onward through 111 episodes, the show built on, and put its own spin on, a vast, already well-liked mythology. In the first five movies alone, Hercules encounters impressive takes on the Hydra, Prometheus, Hades, and the Minotaur. Many of the actors who populated the TV movies would go on to become feature players throughout the series: Lucy Lawless (the future Xena) was among the Amazonian women in the first TV movie. Both Renee O’Connor and Robert Trebor (respectively, the future Gabrielle and Salmonius) appear in Hercules And The Lost Kingdom Only Hercules’ best friend Iolaus, as played by Michael Hurst, continues on as a support character whose status and identity remain vitally important when the movies turn to series.  

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Throughout The Legendary Journeys, Hercules is put through the wringer by Hera – the first episode starts with her killing his wife and children – along with a range of deities that extended to the fringes of Europe. No matter how dark things got, ultimately Herc’s sense of duty to humanity and his friendship with Iolaus, who shares that same sense of duty, eventually brought them jovially back on the road together. In that vein, the series ends as it begins. Where the M.A.N.T.I.S. pilot was seen as being about “the human condition,” Hercules had the benefit of being able to tap into a more obviously populist template. While the show also explored the human condition in its own way, The Legendary Journeys had a traditionally stalwart hero and a broad sense of humour.

Here she comes… Xena: Warrior Princess

Renaissance Pictures continues to embrace swords and sorcery with their next project, which modified their Legendary template by having a character with much less of a stalwart core. The groundwork is laid in the first season of The Legendary Journeys with the episode, The Warrior Princess. Played by Lucy Lawless, Xena of Amphipolis is introduced as a female warlord. In the subsequent episode, Gauntlet, she’s a warlord with a burgeoning conscience. By the end of her next appearance in Unchained Heart, Xena is putting aside feelings for Hercules to try to make up for all the ills she’s caused. And she’s caused a lot. Spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess (1995) is primarily the creation of Rob Tapert.  

Among the populist elements of all Renaissance Pictures’ sword-and-sorcery productions has been sex appeal. In some ways, I think Xena was the counterweight that – for the universe it shared with Hercules – demonstrated that the scantily clad element was more of an external aesthetic one than an internal one (mostly). Xena was the most formidable warrior in that universe who wasn’t a demi-god. In the show’s first episode, she takes Renee O’Connor’s Gabrielle, an idealistic village girl who idolizes the warrior princess, under her wing.

Throughout their travels together, Xena struggles to do good while constantly having to come to terms with how much damage she’s done in the past. There was a natural comedy to be mined from the combination of world-savvy Xena and the not-savvy-at-all Gabrielle. But the most broad comedy came in the form of Joxer the Mighty (Renaissance fixture, Ted Raimi) a goodhearted but inept would-be warrior. Joxer’s growth as a character over multiple seasons is just one example of how Renaissance rewarded fan interest in peripheral characters. In order to accomplish that, Renaissance had to care about such, too.

 Over six series, Xena would see Gabrielle become Xena’s equal; its title character would find redemption in bittersweet fashion. The show would strike a lasting chord with an unusually wide berth of people that included those who could relate to the undertones of a relationship between the two main female characters that transcended friendship.

Someone’s at the door…

If you liked genre TV, Hercules and Xena released the syndication floodgates. Subsequent shows like The Adventures Of Sinbad (1996) – in which Zen Gesner played a lively but very pale iteration of the title character – and Beastmaster (1999) tried to build on already established mythologies in the same way that Hercules did, but their successes were a bit tepid. Over the course of half a decade after Hercules‘ first TV movie, there were probably about ten genre shows produced with a light-hearted approach.

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In this pre-Lord Of The Rings trilogy world, 1997’s Roar was something unique – a sword and sorcery tale with little trace of the pop sensibility of Renaissance Pictures’ TV successes. Featuring a young Heath Ledger as a Celt trying to align his people to face Roman invaders, Roar was ahead of its time. The short-lived series had great production values and interesting storytelling. Particularly of note is that it was created by Shaun Cassidy, who had already created the oddest duck of Renaissance Pictures’ TV series: American Gothic

American Gothic premiered in 1995, the same year that fellow Renaissance Picture production Xena did. A one-season southern gothic tale with overtly supernatural elements, Gothic followed a few decent people in a small town trying to keep a kid away from his Randall Flag-like father, who is also the town’s sheriff. It was executive produced by Sam Raimi. Among Renaissance Pictures productions, it seems like a unique case of them championing a unique voice honed outside of their wheelhouse. 

As Hercules: The Legendary Journeys ended its run, it was replaced in January of 2000 by two Renaissance Pictures’ series: Jack Of All Trades, featuring Renaissance man Bruce Campbell as an early American secret agent, and Cleopatra 2525 – with a very Cormanesque plot about an exotic dancer put into cryogenic storage who is woken up by two female freedom fighters in the robot-controlled future. It starred Gina Torres, Victoria Pratt and Jennifer Sky as the title character. Both shows were charming in their own ways, but compared to both Hercules and Xena, the show’s individual universes felt more narrow. 

This is withstanding that Cleopatra 2525 took place in a corridor-heavy subterranean world. The half-hour time constraint on both shows (which aired back to back) lent itself to their more comedic take on genre television. Much like the average lifespan of most other lighthearted genre shows in the wake of Hercules and Xena, they managed two seasons; Cleopatra‘s second would find it extended to an hour-long to replace Jack of All Trades. When the series ended in 2001, it would be seven years before Renaissance Pictures would have a hand in bringing another genre tale to TV screens.


Into every generation, a legacy is born

By 2008, the world had changed. Very few shows were being produced just for syndication. Reality shows devoured many spaces that had been carved out for scripted TV. The success of the increasingly grave Lord Of The Rings film trilogy had taken a lot of stock out of tongue-in-cheek fantasy. It’s in this world that Raimi sets out to adapt Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth novels. The result, Legend Of The Seeker, starred Craig Horner as Richard Cypher, the eponymous Seeker, Bridget Regan as Kahlan (a confessor) and Bruce Spence as the wizard Zedd.

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Together over two seasons, they set out to defeat various malevolent forces together. It intentionally took itself more seriously than Hercules and Xena, yet it still had something of a light touch. Though the series had a fairly strong fan following and it came back stronger creatively in its second season (like Cleopatra 2525), the TV landscape was so different that I’m not sure that any other production company but Renaissance Pictures could have lead the way for a new syndicated fantasy show that lasted as long as it did.       

I doubt I’d be the first to say that Buffy The Vampire Slayer benefitted from the groundwork laid by Renaissance Pictures. Even the way its one spin-off came into being directly mirrors Xena: Warrior Princess – about a once-villain looking for redemption. The hero of that spin-off, Angel, is also a similarly polar opposite to the source show’s protagonist. Renaissance Pictures has never been credited with having the same creative voice of Mutant Enemy or a Bad Robot, but it’s hard to imagine them existing without Raimi, Tapert, Campbell – and, often, Bernadette Joyce – going for broke with cool genre concepts they cared about, and learning what worked for them. 

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