My Saturdays aren't as jiggly as they used to be. No longer does "Sheena" dart around my screen, shape-shifting at will and engaging in thoughtful dialogue with lemurs. Xena: Warrior Princess has migrated its breastplates and lesbian subtexts to the realm of disturbing fan fiction. I can't indulge my spray-tan fantasies during "Baywatch" these days, much less "Baywatch Nights."
Cheeseball syndicated drama has disappeared since the heyday that brought us those masterworks of well-costumed frolic, not to mention "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," "Renegade" and "Relic Hunter." That's a shame, because if there's anything that distracted mouth-breathers deserve at the end of the work week, it's bikini forensic pathologists, boy-wizards with washboard stomachs and anthropomorphic owls, united in the twin pursuits of sexy justice and purloined magical baubles.
The syndicated "Legend of the Seeker," which debuted last month, aspires to fill the imagination void. Adapted from the "Sword of Truth" novels written by Terry Goodkind, the show tasks a heroic, chisel-chested woodsman with ... with what, exactly? Something to do with fighting evil warlord-barbarians trying to enrich themselves while making the post-feudal universe go boom; we know they're evil because they wear eyeliner and sport meticulously landscaped goatees. At one point, the sweet-child-o'-destiny woodsman seeker guy squints reaaaaaaally hard and quips, "My mission is to fight dark and wrong." See?
The above paragraph implies that "Legend" is difficult to follow, which ain't the case. In fact, it's a show for those who find pop-up books too intellectually impermeable. Everything about "Legend" shoots straight down the middle. The plots are simple and self-contained, which spare newbie viewers the nuisance of immersing themselves in a convoluted mythology. The dialogue includes few words or concepts more imposing than "loyalty." Emotion is conveyed via confused, purse-lipped facial expressions (or, as the kids today call it, "acting"). Props in the latter category go to the dude who plays the awesomely named Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander, whose accent and affectations suggest an unholy union of Yoda and Bobcat Goldthwait.
Unfortunately, "Legend" doesn't dabble in self-aware giggles. This is a show that presents one consequential moment after the next, each announced by an orchestral swell. Prophesies! Betrayals! Mountainous lairs! Bodice-popping bosoms! (Seriously: just as guys can't realistically aspire to the NBA if they're shorter than 5'11", so too are gals eliminated from syndie-drama consideration if they can't truthfully describe their breasts as "bangin' double-Ds.") The problem with this approach is that most viewers can only stomach so many revelations per hour, especially absent the wink-nudge humor of "Xena" and the rest.
At the same time, "Legend" mutes its source material. This might make the show more appealing to couchbound mainstream viewers, but will likely alienate message-board-happy fans of Goodkind's novels, which feature abundant violence and sex. "Legend," on the other hand, features a Disney-chaste romance (between Woodsman Boy and a Liv Tyler stand-in) and chase sequences that pack the visceral wallop of a potato-sack race. Apparently anything other than implied gore -- the episodes I watched featured 372 sword fights but nary a drop of blood -- is a no-no in syndieland nowadays.
The news isn't all bad. Shot in hi-def amid New Zealand's lushest forests, "Legend" looks considerably sharper than its syndicated predecessors. Additionally, its agreeable simplicity, in plot and characterization, might resonate in these dismal times. At the end of the show's 44-odd minutes, the bad guy is vanquished, the good guys exchange high-fives and/or dewy glances, and the elfin faerie knaves do a happy jig. Hugs all around.
Perhaps that explains why big-brand advertisers have gravitated towards "Legend," at least in the market (New York) where I viewed it. I expected the ads from marketers of DVDs ("The Dark Knight") and video games ("World of Warcraft"), but not the ones from brands like Olay, Clorox and Listerine (which gets the "presented by" designation). I'm not sure what this says about the envisioned viewership for "Legend." That they need to brush their teeth and better tend to related matters of personal hygiene?
Given its professional look and by-the-numbers approach, "Legend of the Seeker" will probably stick around for a while, and I suppose one could do worse in those dead-zone weekend hours. I just wish the minds behind "Legend" -- a prominent lot, including Sam Raimi and ABC Studios -- would have either downgraded or supersized their ambitions. As it stands, "Legend" occupies the dramatic middle ground: It's not good enough to be great and not bad enough to be good. That's purgatory for a syndicated drama. Either up the kitsch or start aiming higher.