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Tomb Raider of the Lost Ark

You think you've seen bad television, don't you?

You sat through Shasta McNasty. You had a look at The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer for the two weeks it was on. You still bore your friends by recounting that time that you got to see the pilot for Tag Team. (Jesse Ventura and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper are wrestlers turned cops!) But I'm here to tell you that you've gotten soft and lazy.

I'm here to tell you about the wonders of syndicated television. That's television which is still, in the face of all logic, producing brand new television shows that are so bad that not even WB or UPN will consider carrying them.

We're talking about Baywatch rip-offs. We're talking about Baywatch spinoffs. And today, we're talking about Relic Hunter, starring Tia Carrere.

I can't tell you when it airs because it's syndicated, and that means that the run-down shotgun shack that passes for a studio mails the videotape in unmarked brown envelopes to random stations across this great land of ours, and the station puts the show on as far away from human eyes as possible.

Here in Seattle -- think of us when you throw your next riot! Many large corporations make looting convenient and fun! -- it's on at midnight, Sunday night. This isn't an easy show to get to. I had to prepare myself with near-lethal doses of caffeine. Unfortunately, this made me unnaturally alert and attentive, which is not the state of mind you want to be in when you're watching Tia Carrere pretend to be an archaeologist.

Relic Hunter shows surprising creativity in that it steals from a whopping two sources. It's pretty clearly "Tomb Raider" meets "Indiana Jones." And why shouldn't Lara Croft meet Indiana Jones? They're both daredevil archaeologists, aren't they? Who are you to say that Lara Croft could never meet Indiana Jones? You're being unfair to both of them, that's what I say.

Sorry. Got carried away. I blame the caffeine. Or possibly the sight of Tia decked out as Sydney Fox, the Trinity College archaeology professor. Just like Indiana Jones, she wears glasses at the school, to look academic. And just like it did when it was Harrison Ford doing it, it makes you say "Hey! Those aren't real glasses!"

Wouldn't it make more sense if these daredevil archaeologists wore glasses when they went on their dangerous missions? I mean, when do you need perfect sight: teaching a class of bored undergraduates or swinging on vines in ancient temples while trying to strangle a Nazi?

The opening credits set the tone for the show fairly precisely: occasional pretty shots of ruins, "old" maps, and jungles. And Tia taking her shirt off. Sword fights, idols, and showers. Now we're talking.

Although I've seen two episodes -- the lengths I go to for research cannot be believed -- and I don't remember any shirt-taking-off. Not even in the "Sydney looks for Casanova's lost book of love-making while on an assignment for a sexy soccer player" episode. Not that the episode had any more gratuitous skin than the "Sydney looks for Ariadne's golden thread from the Minotaur story" one.

Sydney has two assistants: Nigel, the shy and stammering Australian, and Claudia the blonde. In this show, being blonde is a complete description of a character. Oh, and everyone is at least as attractive as Tia Carrere, although she's a better actor than a lot of them. And that, my friends, is a scary thought.

Each episode has a few basic elements. First, they have to introduce the historical or mythological basis for the artifact with some clumsy dialogue:

Sydney: Do you know the myth of the Minotaur?

Nigel: Of course. Um, half-man, half-bull. Banished to the labyrinth where he lived in an endless maze of tunnels.

Sydney: The maze was so complex, the gods created a golden ball of twine so that humans may find their way out.

They go on like that, telling each other things they already know (and getting the actual myth wrong in the process) until they've established that what they're looking for is a stone key (that we've just seen Claudia get in Greece from a Greek guy named Stavros) that will unlock the Minotaur's maze and provide access to the golden ball of twine, setting up the gratuitous skin shots.

In the Casanova episode, we had to establish that the soccer player liked the ladies. In the minotaur episode, we learned that archaeologists do some of their best research while lounging around on Greek beaches. I knew I took the wrong courses in college.

So then there's some intrigue:

Sydney: So you sent me the picture to get me intrigued.

Stavros: Yes. We must find the maze and the golden twine before the others do.

Sydney: What others? Who are you?

Stavros: I'll be in touch. Speak to absolutely no one. And guard the stone.

Sydney: Wait!

Enter Guy With Gun, cue the fight scene, involving lots of rolling around on the sand and girls in bikinis looking on, until Guy With Gun makes his daring escape on a jet ski. Which doesn't look like it goes that fast, but never mind, because it's time for the episode's shoddy research scene.

In the Casanova episode, our world-class archaeologist did research by going to a local museum that happened to have a Casanova exhibit up, which happened to include a letter which happened to use a type of ancient Italian that Nigel knew about but none of the curators did, and, luckily, Nigel's guess about the invisible ink was right, too!

In the Minotaur episode, Sydney goes to an expert who takes one look at a stone and says "there's only one quarry in the world that produces this kind of marble."

Where are these experts that don't need to run tests? They'd be handy in murder cases.

"Do you recognize this blood?"

"Yes! That blood only comes from people with the exact genetic make-up of... you, the judge!"

Sydney's expert also identifies the stone as being at least 2000 years old after looking at it for five seconds with a magnifying glass. That also lets him tell Sydney that a man she calls only "Stavvi" must be Stavros Vardalos, whose father is one of the richest men in Crete.

"Dimitri Vardalos, the shipping magnate?" Sydney asks, bringing us to the next basic element of Relic Hunter -- irrelevant gibberish. That takes up most of the episode.

The end of each episode brings my favorite part, the clever traps and secret doors segment. Those ancient Greeks and Aztecs and stuff really knew how to build their tombs, didn't they? Place the right stone here, and that wall swings away. Wave your hand through that sun beam, and darts shoot out of that wall.

The dart guns will be reloaded by the trained tarantulas, I guess.

Even in the Casanova episode, there's a statue that opens up when you stroke the right part. And, now that I've written that, I'd just like to say: ick.

Just like Indiana Jones, Sydney never gets to keep anything. Either the Blofeld-of-the-week steals it or it falls to dust. Nice going, Sydney! That twine lasted thousands of years locked away in a nice, 20th-century marble tomb, and now you've destroyed it. Bad archaeologist!

And with that, the show ends, leaving us to wonder what we're doing awake at 1:00 am on Monday morning. Unfortunately, we also seem to have missed VIP.


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