Xena: Warrior Princess is the highest-rated syndicated show on television, with an average viewership of more than five million viewers a week. Xena: Warrior Princess is a spin-off of the second highest-rated syndicated show on TV, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was the only long-running successful outcome of The Action Pack, a rotating group of action shows that included TekWar (a limited-run adaptation of the novel by William Shatner of Star Trek fame).
Both Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess take place in some unspecified period before the year 1AD. Hercules is the figure familiar from Greek mythology: the son of Zeus, King of the Gods. He travels around using his extraordinary strength and kind nature to help people around Greece (and later other locations in the world). During his travels, he meets Xena, who at that time is a warlord intent on taking over Greece herself, and then later the rest of the world. She is categorized as ruthless and amoral (which she is), but the details aren't made clear until later on her own show. During the course of their interaction, Hercules inspires Xena to give up her evil ways and become a force for good. Xena's own show revolves around her efforts to do this, despite the mistrust of people who knew her before, and her own predilection for violence and evil behaviour. Yeah, so who cares, and why? Well, five million people watch the show every week in the UK, so there must be something to it.
First of all, the hero is a girl and not some little wispy femme, either. Xena (played by Lucy Lawless) is six feet tall and has a big sword with which she stabs, slices and dices villains - very athletically too, while still clearly being a girl (albeit a big one). There's never been anything like it on TV, and in the five years since it started, there hasn't even been an effort to clone a cheap knock-off. Second of all, the hero's sidekick (Gabrielle) is also female. So the show is about two women travelling together, without male escort (leaving aside the question of the supporting character Joxer, who is a special case) or patronage, doing decidedly 'unfeminine' things like killing giants and challenging evil gods who try to destroy our world.
These two women are real women, not men in women's bodies, or some 'feminine' constructs who carry swords and staffs but who really need some big strong man to do the actual work. Xena and her friend Gabrielle are quite competent on their own, thank you very much. Also, speaking of Xena and Gabrielle, their relationship is... close. Very close. The writers and producers of this show are clearly unafraid of, and in fact enjoy, homoeroticism. Both the actors and the producers have said numerous times that the implication Xena and Gabrielle are lovers has been quite deliberate. The fans call it 'subtext'. The popularity of this show was built on the foundation of lesbian support, and that has been acknowledged both in interviews of the staff and in the subtextual communications within the show. Although both characters have had long-term heterosexual relationships, and viewers can argue with some foundation that they are not lovers, it is patently obvious that Xena and Gabrielle's most important relationship is with each other, sex or no sex.
For those of... er, a creative bent, watching this show is an education. Perceptive viewers can clearly see the writers delicately treading the line between their outrageous ideas and what current prevailing TV standards actually allow. Even more fun is watching them extricate themselves when they've miscalculated, which sometimes takes as much as a half-season to accomplish. But they're also very honest and have yet to leave any important tangled thread unresolved in as reasonable a manner as possible (without cheating, in other words).
But the really interesting thing is the 'Joseph Campbell' factor1. The show's premise is that Xena has changed herself from evil to good. But what then is the appropriate attitude towards a truly reformed evil-doer? Do we just forget what she did? Or do we punish her, even though she's different now? And is she, really, different now? It's no metaphor; Xena has done truly evil things in her pursuit of power. The writers periodically throw a flashback story into the mix, graphically detailing her activities of that time. And because they do, the audience has to answer the very same questions that Xena struggles with.
No discussion of Xena can be complete without discussing 'The Rift', which made up the second half of Season Three. It began when Xena lied to Gabrielle, concealing from her that she had killed someone that she claimed had not been killed at all. It continued when Xena, perhaps being overcontrolling (and Gabs perhaps not being independent of mind enough to complain), took them both to 'Brittania', where Xena then abandoned Gabrielle, which resulted in Gabrielle bearing a half-human/half-demon child against her will (among other things). Gabrielle then lied to Xena saying she had killed the child (but had not) which resulted in Gabrielle's daughter returning and murdering Xena's 12 year old son. And so what, you say? 'So what' is that Xena responded to this unbearable stress by riding into the village where Gabrielle was staying, capturing her by means of a whip around the legs... and dragging her behind the horse for a couple miles preparatory to throwing her off a cliff. It's referred to as 'The Gab-Drag', and frankly, fans don't like to talk about it much; there were a lot of fights and defections over this particular issue. Fans loved Gabrielle, Xena loved Gabrielle... how could she do such a thing to her, and still be a hero? How could Gabrielle forgive her? How could Xena forgive herself? How could a viewer forgive her and continue to watch a show starring a character who could and would do such unspeakable things? This was not, couldn't be, an abstract or pretend question. Any viewer who continued to watch the show had to answer it, or decide consciously to stop watching the show, which was an answer in itself. The struggle roiled painfully, violently, viciously across fan sites around the world, across Usenet in exactly the same way we had all watched this fictitious character struggle with exactly the same issues for three seasons.
It's 'The Joseph Campbell factor', y'see? In a recent episode, Renee O'Connor played a modern-day reincarnation of her character Gabrielle, during which she referred to the show as 'chop-schlocky crap'. And in many ways it is, being, after all, an action adventure show for the American television market. But that's not all it is. Not by a long shot. Were Joseph Campbell still alive, maybe he would agree.