Sunday, May 06, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: TV's Live Action Conan --
A Kinder, Gentler Barbarian

After last week's post on the animated Conan the Adventurer rocketed to more than 300 shares on Facebook, I figured I'd stay in that topical vicinity just a wee bit longer. During the mid-to-late '90s, the sudden, unexpected popularity of syndicated fantasy duo Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess led to a subsequent sudden, completely expected surge of fantasy-inspired series tossed at syndicated TV lineups across the country and across world. Shows with titles like Tarzan: The Epic Adventures, and The Adventures of Sinbad, rushed to a fill a void no one knew existed. And unto this fad, hither came Conan:

Premiering in fall of '97, Conan (just Conan, though it was appended with "the Adventurer" for home video and later reruns) starred German actor Ralf Möller in the role of Robert E. Howard's character, with the thinking no doubt being that what worked so well with an Austrian bodybuilder in the Conan feature films would work just as well with a German bodybuilder on TV. And indeed, Möller (a former Mr. Universe and longtime friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger's) definitely had the physique for the part (not to mention the trademark fur diaper -- why, why why do filmmakers insist on putting Conan in a fur diaper?), but what he ultimately lacked was the charisma necessary to anchor a series.

While I had some concerns about the cartoon version of Conan having his rough edges sanded down thanks to the realities of kidvid, at least the animated show could make use of its format to try and bring life to the many fantastical realms Howard wrote about (and which were seen regularly in the Marvel Conan comics). However, with a budget that was subpar even by syndication standards, Conan's live action TV venture couldn't even offer that, instead contenting itself to depict the adventures of the (surprisingly jocular) Cimmerian and his motley band of TV tokens (The black guy! The little person! The fat guy!) as they traipse across the too-obvious Mexican landscapes where the show was filmed and engage in various acts of derring-do.

Like all other iterations of the Conan saga, this series also centered on the titular barbarian's quest to find the evil wizard who murdered his family (Hissah Zul, played by a very embarrassed-looking Jeremy Kemp -- Captain Picard's brother on Star Trek -- who spent the series taking advice from a ridiculously-fake skeleton), but this quest remained mostly in the background. The thought process here really seemed to be about calling back to audience familiarity with the Schwarzenegger iteration, while paying lip service to the world that Howard actually created.

In hindsight, it's not hard to see why the show didn't take. I remember being 17 or 18 and reading an interview with star Möller from before the show's premiere where he referred to his character as "Conan the Gentleman," which was enough to unleash my inner "Oy vey" reflex. And by the time I saw the series premiere, ending with Conan sobbing -- sobbing! -- over the death of his ladylove, that was it for me (and most other audiences as well, apparently). By the end of the '97 season, that was the ballgame for "Conan the Gentleman," though not before he finally caught up with arch nemesis Hissah Zul in what has to be one of the most unintentionally hilarious closing moments of a series-ender ever:

That right there? That's what is best in life. Awesome.

Anyway, though TV's Conan (not to be confused with TV's Conan) went away pretty quickly, that didn't stop star Möller from firmly planting his feet in the medieval/fantasy genres, having gone on to appear alongside Russell Crowe in Gladiator and alongside the Rock in The Scorpion King. The live action Conan is available to watch on various platforms, be it home video or online, but I can't say there's much to make it worthy of another look (and especially not for the insane prices it's going for on Amazon). It was created as a disposable follow-on to a passing pop culture fad, and fifteen years removed from the TV landscape that prompted its creation, it seems even more forgettable now than it was at the time.


Taranaich said...

The thought process here really seemed to be about calling back to audience familiarity with the Schwarzenegger iteration, while paying lip service to the world that Howard actually created.

Lip service is too generous: begrudging, reluctant sneer in Howard's general direction is more like it. But then, I get the impression they were more interested in replicating the success of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena, with the Arnold films getting a bit more respectful lip service.

Zaki said...

Yeah, now that you mention it, maybe "lip service" was a bit generous.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts this week and last, by the way!