October 23, 2003

The B List

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I really didn’t think that it was possible: the WB has managed to create a show that makes Smallville appear Oscar worthy. And if you read what I wrote about Smallville a few weeks ago, which I’ll admit probably no one did, you’ll know this is no small feat to accomplish. Let’s take a few moments to look at just how this show has managed to accomplish such a task, seemingly without even trying.

Imitation: the sincerest form of flattery

Tarzan has copied Smallville in many ways. The most obvious occasion of this is the casting of the main character. This plum, title role is played by newcomer Travis Fimmel, whose former glory in the world of modelling can easily be recalled by anyone who remembers him from ads for Calvin Klein. That’s right folks, he was one of those fellers sporting tighty whities on gigantic billboards all over the world. While Smallville’s Tom Welling never quite made it to that level of underwear stardom, he did shine for a while as a regular model. Here is where the similarity ends, however, as Welling actually does have some acting chops to draw on. Born in New York, he moved to LA to pursue an acting career and actually performed a guest-stint as Karate Rob on Judging Amy before landing the part of Clark Kent. Welling was also named one of People magazine’s breakthrough stars of 2001. Obviously the WB is hoping that Fimmel will develop a similar fan base and become the next “It” boy as well. Only time will tell if this strategy pays off. Personally, I don’t think Fimmel can hold a candle to Welling, which is odd for me, because I usually prefer blonds.

All alone in the big bad city

Smallville has an enormously talented supporting cast surrounding Welling, including Broadway veteran John Glover, the incredibly gifted Michael Rosenbaum, seasoned professionals Annette O’Toole, and John Schneider, plus up-and-coming star Allison Mack. In Smallville’s cast there is a mix of maturity and youth, experience and raw passion. All of the characters play such an integral role in the show that Welling isn’t expected to carry the weight of the show on his own. One glance at Tarzan will tell you that this is not the case. Not only is Fimmel surrounded for the most part by untested unknowns like himself, the seasoned veterans on the show don’t exactly have the same clout that John Glover brings to a project. For example, Tarzan’s aunt on the show is played by none other than Xena herself, Lucy Lawless. Now, granted, Lawless isn’t running around yodelling in the Amazon while strapped into a leather bondage outfit, but I personally can’t quite get that image out of my head when I see her in a business suit on Tarzan. This is a new show, and if everything is resting on Fimmel, then he sure as hell has to deliver, because no one else is going to.

Hot female co-star

I think that there must be some sort of handbook that television executives receive when they start working with a network. This book spells out all the variety and permutations of formula that can be played with when constructing a show. One of the cardinal rules must be that there has to be some complicated romantic intrigue brewing between the two main stars. The audience wants to see sexual tension, not gratification. If the audience actually get what they say they want, they immediately lose interest. Take, for example, Frasier: the instant that Niles and Daphne hooked up, there was no reason to watch anymore. On Smallville, this rule is fulfilled through the romance (or lack thereof) of Clark and Lana. Every episode lately seems to dance around their feelings for each other, and every week there’s some new reason why they can’t be together. On Tarzan, this never-to-be-until-the-last-season romance is (duh) Tarzan and Jane. Unfortunately, they seem to have as much chemistry as the two wet towels hanging up in my bathroom. In case that’s not a visual enough analogy, I’ll just say it: they don’t click. I honestly couldn’t care less if they hook up, an attitude which they seem to share with me. If there’s no tension, there’s no interest.

Tarzan is the WB’s stilted effort to appeal to an older, more mature audience, since they’ve had the teen demographic cinched for a while now. To achieve that end, Tarzan is darker, more intense, and filled with adults who are actually playing adults, instead of teenagers. The violence is more realistic, the plot hinges less on high school high jinx than brutal crimes, and the main characters live in the big bad world instead of in their parent’s basements. I applaud the WB for attempting to branch out and secure for itself a piece of the adult entertainment section, but this appalling show is definitely not the way to go. There would have to be some major changes on Tarzan to make the show even remotely appealing, outside of the masochistic niche of bad TV lovers. But since this is the WB, and Tarzan follows Charmed, this is probably as good a show as we’re going to get.

Archived article by Sue Karp