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"Tarzan": Burroughs in the Boroughs

A month ago, my only mental note regarding The WB's new Tarzan television series was to avoid it altogether. After all, it's on opposite Goren's Crooked Neck (sometimes called Law & Order: Criminal Intent) and it seems I'm doomed to watch -- or at least record over -- just about anything featuring Vincent D'Onofrio. But I wasn't opposed to the idea of a Tarzan series in principle: as hokey as the Tarzan name and legend have become, I've always thought there were a number of ways Tarzan could be meaningfully redone in a contemporary setting. After all, what was there to lose? In recent years, Tarzan has been treated to live action and animated fare featuring the likes of Bo Derek, Joe Lara, the vocal stylings of Michael T. Weiss, and the saccharine sonic input of Phil Collins. (I'll omit Christopher Lambert's 1984 turn as Tarzan, which had some merit.) Bottom line: Tarzan pretty much has nowhere to go but up.

So I wasn't entirely surprised that the WB -- after spawning successful genre hits like Buffy, Angel, Smallville, Roswell, and, um, Charmed -- decided to take on Tarzan. I was even slightly impressed that the series was to be set in a modern-day New York City, rather than a fictional California suburban enclave or a small town in the Carolinas with a creek running through it. But as soon as I learned that they'd cast 24 year-old Travis Fimmel, a former digitally-enhanced Calvin Klein underwear model with no acting credits, as The Ape Man, I wrote the whole thing off. Even later announcements that The X-Files Mitch Pileggi and Xena's Lucy Lawless would be butting heads as supporting characters failed to draw my interest. In my mind, the project was already doomed to being a rehash of Beastmaster, built on slow-motion pans across Monosyllabic Beefcake Boy's six-pack abs. Pilot episode: muddy, sweaty abs! Episode One: Soapy abs! Episode Two: Sweaty abs! Episode Three (sweeps): Butt Cheek Alert! And so on, all to the plaintive strains of twenty-something angsty singer-songwriters who just happen to be on Warner Music labels.

[OK, I'm being harsh. WB shows license music from non-Warner Music labels, and even indie artists, and some of it is even pretty good. My apologies to Holly. But I stand by my condemnation of Disrobed Hunky Boy/Anorexic Girl Music Segments.]

Then something funny happened, called the World Series. Not wanting to waste first-run programming by running it against the Almighty Ratings Juggernaut represented by beer-nut-crazed sports aficionados and their pavlovian crap-flinging, cowardly NBC broadcast a re-run of Goren's Crooked Neck in lieu of the promised all-new episode. Dagnabbit! And there I was, all set, being smothered on the couch by the combined weight of my feline masters, with an hour before bedtime and with only the ability to adjust channels and volume. Dadgummit. Click. Baseball. Click! Some silly spy show. Click. Some silly home improvement show. Click. Hey, it's a cop show filmed in Toronto! (I've never been to either place, but even I can tell Queen's Park from Central Park.) I wonder what this might be... oh, crap! There's the Underwear Hunk! Click click click!

But you have to understand. The cats were thoroughly ensconced. They have all their claws, which hadn't (ow) been trimmed lately, and they knew it wasn't bedtime yet. I wasn't going anywhere. And there was nothing else on.

Click. So. Travis Fimmel.

The premise of Tarzan is that two year-old John Clayton survives a plane crash in Africa which kills his parents. But instead of dying of exposure, starvation, disease, or bad luck, John grows up amongst wild animals and apes. Eighteen years after the plane crash, John's uncle Richard Clayton (Mitch Pileggi) finally locates and captures John, returning him to New York City. Richard Clayton is the CEO of the Greystoke Industries, a multi-billion-dollar company of an unspecified nature. Richard Clayton's interest in John is difficult to understand -- he seems motivated in part by a sincere desire to "rescue" his nephew and provide for him the blue-blooded captain-of-industry role which would have been his if that plane hadn't crashed. But Richard's also trying to preserve his own control of Greystoke Industries: Richard Clayton has been running the show since the death of John's parents, but John is the direct heir, and Richard would rather John be a pliable pawn than an enemy.

So what happens? John quickly uses his jungle wiles to escape Uncle Richard, and finds himself a homeless monkey-out-of-the-trees in New York City, where he doesn't know a soul, doesn't know how anything works, and doesn't know what to do. Naive, instinctual, law-of-the-jungle boy that he is, it doesn't take him long to cross paths with the cops, in this case embodied by Detective Michael Foster (Johnny Messner), his significant other, the fiery redhead Officer Jane Porter (Sarah Wayne Callies) and her partner Officer Sam Sullivan (Miguel Nuñez). John gets one whiff of Jane and immediately knows he'd like to get into some monkey business. Jane gets one whiff of Tarzan and...

...just falls apart.

See, for me, Jane is where the writing on Tarzan will live or die. Despite looking like a fashion model (which irks me: how many female cops on TV don't look like fashion models? Sheesh) Jane is fierce, determined, tough, and very much a street cop, but she's also one of those top-of-her-class, play-by-the-rules, talented, thoroughly modern women. Jane's in control of her life, in control of her career, in control of her relationships (with Detective Michael, as well as her little sister Nicki, played by Leighton Meester). Jane knows what she wants out of life: the badge, the husband, the happy family, the circle of close friends, the successful and rewarding career, the vacation home in the Hamptons. And everything's right on track... until John shows up and sniffs her. Within days her life is upside down: she's shielding a fugitive, her boyfriend is dead, she's caught in a decade's old blood feud between members of one of New York's most powerful families, she's probably going to lose her job, and this barefoot, clueless, muscle-bound boy is practically stalking her, showing up unannounced on her windowsill, lurking unseen on the rooftops everywhere she goes. And, despite her better judgement, she's drawn to him: his black-and-white morality, his absolute commitment and loyalty, his self-confidence, his utter inability to lie... and, of course, his six-pack abs. But she knows better: he's reckless, he doesn't remotely understand New York City or modern culture, he's ruthless (when he has to fight, it's the claw-and-fang method), he's easily frustrated, and he often loses control of his temper. In short, Jane is torn between her attraction to John and the overwhelming evidence of common sense. Common sense would easily be the winner, except that Jane feels responsible for John's circumstances. Sure, John dug part of his own hole, but he did so out of naivete: to an extent, John's predicament is the result of Jane's actions, and Jane feels she should have known better. So, for Jane, abandoning John would be wrong: thus, common sense gets put off another week. When the scripts let her, Sarah Callie is wonderful at depicting Jane's predicament: you can see the conflict in her eyes, and that she sets it aside to resolve whatever crisis is facing the characters at the moment.

For now, the show's situation has stabilized with the introduction of Kathleen Clayton (Lucy Lawless), John's aunt and estranged sister of Uncle Richard. Kathleen is supposedly a wealthy newspaper publisher, although we've seen little evidence of that on camera: for now, her function is to wear pastels, provide John a place to stay (a conveniently jungle-like over-grown hothouse at the top of her palatial family home), occupy her living room set in a scene or two an episode, and put on a tearful, pensive face as she lets John choose his own path rather than trying to mold him. A far cry from the Xena versus Tarzan showdown some fans may have wanted! It's likely Kathleen will play a larger role in upcoming episodes (it'd be a shame if she didn't) but Kathleen's days are numbered: Lucy Lawless has a separate development deal with Warner Brothers, so expect Kathleen to be gone by the Tarzan season finale: interesting story developments could stem from her (apparent?) death at the hands of any of the other major characters. I vote for Jane.

[And for fanfreaks out there: I gave up on The X-Files long before Lawless did a guest-starring role, so I don't know if she and Mitch Pileggi shared the screen before Tarzan. But I do know Lawless studied acting in Vancouver B.C. at the William Davis Center for Actors. Yes, that William B. Davis. So there. Nyah.]

So Tarzan has the will-they-or-won't-they tension between John and Jane, plus the epic-sized family battle waging over who controls John's fate now that he's back in civilization. Against this backdrop, the writers seem to be turning Tarzan into a combination of an adventure show and a crime drama, with weekly episodes largely focusing on Jane's police cases and John's puppy-dog eagerness to help Jane however he can. One week it's an abducted child; one week it's a sniper; one week it's a sexual predator. John's able to use his jungle super-powers to save lives and do the right thing on several occasions; he's also caused Jane and others trouble and grief, mostly from unintended consequences. John doesn't mean to cause trouble; he just can't see it coming.

And it's in these weekly stories that Tarzan tends to lose its grip on reality. Where shows like Xena, Buffy, and Smallville have supernatural and otherworldly elements as key components of their premise, Tarzan has to fall back on John's mystical primitive jungle mojo to make many of its stories work. Need to head off a criminal's escape? No problem: John will follow his car, unseen, on foot, for untold miles through the city, then anticipate the criminal's destination and cut him of at a natural choke-point (a bridge). Learned that in the rain forest, did ya? Need to track a missing child? John will follow his scent for miles, to a junk yard, then pick out the car trunk where the villain stashed the child. Things like this wouldn't be out off place on a show where gods walk the earth, your main character is an alien, or one of your main characters runs a magic shop and can pluck needed mystical items off the special shelf upstairs. But in a show where the title character is supposed to be as human as everyone else -- just with a better wax job -- credibility can get strained a little too far. It's one thing for John to have unique, special skills and abilities: it's another thing for plots to rely on them to such an extreme degree.

But I haven't told you about what may be the best part of the show. As much as I'm shocked to be saying it, it's Travis Fimmel.

For an Australian farm boy with no acting credits aside from modelling, Fimmel seems to have been well cast as John Clayton. (And to the writers' credit, the name Tarzan basically doesn't appear anywhere but in the credits.) First and foremost, Fimmel is tremendously physical in the role. He's doing many of his own stunts (you can tell, because the editors milk them in slow motion so you can be sure to see his face). His balance is apparently spectacular: Fimmel really is leaping around junk yards and going through New York alleys barefoot (the show is largely shot in Toronto, but they've spent some money on location shots in New York). I have no idea how much Fimmel's been coached and trained, but he conveys a very chimp-like manner to his motions and action sequences. When he leaps, he lands solidly with both feet and doesn't waver: precisely the skill needed to land on a branch in a forest, or the ledge of a building. When he fights (which isn't as often as you'd think) or when he's moving rapidly over uneven ground, he's immediately low to the ground, like a chimp, nearly on all fours and covering ground quickly. In a fight, there are no rules: full body checks are fine; teeth are fine; battering an opponent who's down is expected. When he hangs by one arm, the arm is relaxed; when he needs to climb, he conserves motion marvelously and his torso seems to be doing much of the work. This is no swimmer who's put on a loincloth and is carefully swinging from fake-vine to fake-vine, or an actor being obviously being swung around on wires (although there is some wire work in the show): Fimmel's actually kind of astonishing, and it lends substantial credibility to what could easily be an unbelievable character.

But it's not just Fimmel's large-scale physical motions; again, I have no idea to what degree these are Fimmel's own characterizations or his coaching, but John Clayton stands too close to everybody, leaving them only a few inches of personal space in front of their face. John doesn't slouch, sit, lean, or put his hands in pockets: he's either upright, squatting, or has wedged himself into a window or against a wall. He doesn't understand furniture: doors and windows make sense, but chairs seem to baffle him. He has no use for shoes, and has yet to make use of pockets. When he's intent on a person -- whether that be Uncle Richard, Jane, or someone else -- he doesn't blink.

I'm not saying these constitute astonishing acting chops: so far, the scripts haven't let John Clayton sound too many notes other than anger, confusion, righteous jungle-vibe, and smoldering jungle-vibe. But there aren't too many other notes for the traditional Tarzan character, save kindness to animals and those in need. If Fimmel can handle it, the writers will give John Clayton some more material -- and possibly dare to move past the will-they-or-won't-they issue with John and Jane. (The writers could do a lot worse than looking at how Farscape handled that issue... and a lot better than looking at Moonlighting. But if the show stays on the air, I certainly hope they aren't dancing around it three seasons from now.)

So, if you get a chance -- and are willing to look past a few caressingly slow-motion shots of a shirtless Travis Fimmel and possibly some non-credible plot points surrounding John Clayton's jungle super-powers -- the WB's Tarzan isn't as bad as it could be, and it's nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. Just remember: the WB could have decided to do John Carter of Mars... I wonder if Noah Wyle would be available for that when ER finally totters off into oblivion?


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