When I was in middle school I started reading the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. My dad had the whole set (all 24 of them) and I read them all. I was totally obsessed and to this day I lament the disappearance of most of those books. Because of the Tarzan series I read more books by Edgar Rice Burroughs so I know who Frank Frazetta is and I’m not lost when the name John Carter of Mars comes up. Edgar Rice Burroughs may be my own personal most-read author.
I’ll admit, his writing is a bit cheesy, mostly in the dialogue area. Of course, I’ve never read anything else written between the 1910s and 1940s – that I know of – so it could just be the era it was written in. But the fact of the matter is that Burroughs could write a good pulpy adventure story and I loved every minute I spent reading the Tarzan series, not to mention his numerous other works.
At this point you may be wondering why I’m bringing up books written by a man who’s been dead since 1950. Well, it’s because I finally watched the WB’s Tarzan – all eight episodes – and I feel compelled to review.
If you know nothing about Tarzan, you’re about to get a quick schooling (and shame on you for not knowing the real story of Tarzan, not the Disney-fied version). Lord and Lady Greystoke (AKA John and Alice Clayton) were on their way to the west coast of Africa were John was to investigate the treatment of black British subjects by another European power; they never made it. They were instead marooned in the middle of nowhere on the coast of Africa. Within nine months John, Jr. was born. A year later John, Sr. and his wife were both dead and the baby was being cared for by a great ape that had lost her own offspring in an accident.
The baby grew up as an ape and was called Tarzan. During that time he taught himself to read and write English from books his parents had brought with them and were still in the hut his father had built (though obviously he didn’t know anything about his real parents). About 20 years later he was introduced to the American Jane Porter and her father Archimedes, as well as several supporting characters that don’t really matter in a brief history of the real story of Tarzan. BTW, you saw that right, Jane is actually an American in the original story. Anyway, many mishaps and adventures befall the group, Tarzan saves Jane, Tarzan falls in love with Jane, eventually Tarzan and Jane get married and have a son named Jack, which is, in itself, a whole other story.
Being as it is that I know the original Tarzan story I’m probably harder to please than most people when it comes to film and TV adaptations involving one of my favorite characters. Even before I read the books I liked the idea of Tarzan (yes, at one point I wanted to be Jane so I could swing through the trees with Tarzan). So forgive me if I concentrate too much on odd details as this review goes on.
I’ve long felt that there hasn’t been a really good Tarzan adaptation to film or TV – at least not recently. Greystoke annoyed me (and I’ll tell you why when I get around to reviewing that film) and almost every other adaptation has been utterly forgettable. I’m not kidding, I know I’ve seen a few and I remember nothing about any of them. It’s a travesty, really, and one I’d like to see remedied. Enter WB’s Tarzan.
In the WB’s version of Tarzan, he and his parents went down in a plane in the jungles of Africa where his uncle, Richard Clayton, finds him about 20 years later and brings him back to New York City. The Claytons [Richard, brother John (Tarzan’s father – now deceased), and sister Kathleen] own equal shares of a multi-billion dollar corporation called Greystoke Industries. Kathleen and Richard (played by the inimitable Lucy Lawless and former X-Files alum Mitch Pileggi, respectively) are in the middle of a huge legal battle over the rights to John’s third of the company. Richard now has an ace up his sleeve with the fact that he has young John, Jr. under lock and key – or does he? Into the mix steps Jane, an NYPD detective, her boyfriend Michael (also NYPD), and various other characters whose lives are vicariously interrupted through Tarzan’s interruption of Jane’s life.
If I have to compare the plot behind this series with the original Tarzan plot I’d have a hard time doing it for one major reason: the show takes place in the here-and-now and the original plot would simply not have worked. That in itself is the result of several reasons, one major one being that, given the era in which Tarzan of the Apes was originally written, there is a certain amount of what could be perceived as racism in the books that alone would have guaranteed no network would touch it with a 10-foot pole. All in all I’d have to say that while some elements annoyed me (not enough Tarzan in the first episode, the introduction of Michael and his jealous streak that brands him as a snotty little five-year-old) as a whole the premise is not bad.
The casting of Tarzan himself was perfect. I will grant that Travis Fimmel is a bit stiff starting off, but being as it is that Tarzan is his first acting job ever and the dialogue initially didn’t really feel like it was written naturally it’s really not bad. He’s definitely no Hayden Christiansen, an actor so wooden a 2×4 could do a better job. I’ve got to give him props for loosening up throughout the eight episode series while speaking with an American accent – though a couple of times he slipped back into his native Aussie accent. And, let’s face it ladies, he’s pure eye candy. I’ve been watching Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Travis Fimmel puts Dean Cain to shame. Basically, he’s exactly what I would have imagined Tarzan to be: well-defined, lithe, and he’s got the perfect piercing blue eyes. *sigh*
I wasn’t impressed with Jane Porter (Sarah Wayne Callies) – at first. I thought she looked a bit too old for the part and as a character she came off as being indecisive and a bit whiny. By the end I still wasn’t terribly impressed with her character, but she definitely improved by the eighth episode. I can almost guarantee my problems with her have something to do with the fact that I watch a lot of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and I absolutely adore Detectives Eames, Wheeler, and Benson. Unfortunately, Jane doesn’t hold a candle to any of those detectives. But she’s a heckuva lot better than Michael.
Michael Foster (Johnny Messner) annoyed the bejeesus out of me and, to be quite honest I’m glad he didn’t make it to the end of the series. He was needy, overly macho, and a little too caught up in the Jane-is-mine mindset. Even Tarzan with his most brutish “Me Tarzan, you Jane” couldn’t muster up the level of possessiveness this guy was oozing. I can understand jealousy but when a grown man acts like a petulant child and puts somebody else’s life in danger because of it I can’t help but write them off. So yes, a part of me cheered when he bit it. And since he had gotten himself involved with Richard Clayton his death didn’t surprise me at all.
I always liked AD Skinner on The X-Files but Richard Clayton (Mitch Pileggi) is completely unlikable. He’s that guy that puts on one face for everybody outside his own small circle, but in reality he’s a cold-blooded sociopath with no compunction whatsoever with ripping apart people’s lives to get what he wants even if he can get it a less destructive way. I never thought I’d say this, but Mitch Pileggi actually managed to make me hate him in this role and that is just awesome. This, of course, is in stark contrast to his sister, Kathleen Clayton.
I was über-happy to see Lucy Lawless pop up in this series as Kathleen Clayton. When I first saw her and Tarzan together it was like the casting gods had shone their countenance upon the WB and Lucy Lawless was their ray of sunshine. There have been exactly three shows I can think of where the actors actually looked like they shared a family resemblance that you could really believe: Frasier with David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammar, Kyle XY with Matt Dallas and J. Eddie Peck, and now Tarzan with Travis Fimmel and Lucy Lawless. But aside from that, I just love the character of Kathleen. She’s a breath of fresh air compared to Richard in that she actually cares about her nephew and what happens to him, even going so far as to try to give up everything just to keep him safe. And, come on, it’s Lucy Lawless, people. Who can honestly bring themselves to hate on Xena?
I was initially really irritated by Jane’s partner Sam Sullivan (Miguel A. Núñez, Jr.) but after a couple of episodes of him being a jerk about the whole Tarzan thing he ended up being a pretty cool guy. By the end of the series he was dangerously close to losing more than a partner in a battle that, by all accounts they should never have hoped to win. If that’s not true friendship, I don’t know what is.
One major issue I have to take with Tarzan is that the apeman seemed to enjoy jumping through a variety of windows, to include plate glass. Barefoot. Not only did he spend a lot of time running around in the resultant glass shards in his bare feet, he also rolled around in those same glass shards. Not one cut. The only cut he did managed to sustain was when he jumped through a greenhouse window and sliced his leg open (see following screenshots). I take issue with this because I don’t think Tarzan had much chance to practice jumping through windows in the middle of the African jungle.
Tarzan jumps through a greenhouse window.
Kathleen Clayton discovers blood on the window.
Tarzan’s badly cut leg.
I guess I can’t get too bent out of shape about this because it’s a TV show and a certain amount of suspension of belief will always be needed when watching anything on the big or small screen.
I think one area this series really succeeded where other adaptations have failed is in Tarzan’s movement. Whether he was chasing down a perp for Jane or beating somebody senseless he moved like an animal, not like a human pretending to be an animal. To make you really understand just how good the movement is, imagine watching Jackie Chan in a great fight scene. Then compare that to a fight scene in a mid-seventies independent kung fu flick. Yes, his movements are that good. For that alone I would recommend you watch at least a couple of episodes because I find it so astounding they were actually able to make Tarzan’s movement look like what you would expect it should be. A few pictures of this movement (sorry the quality isn’t that great but I couldn’t get really clear screenshots):
The landing tackle.
Verdict: A-. I was originally going to give this a B, then a B+, but the more I think about it the more I realize I really loved this show. It now sits on my list of TV shows that were cancelled way before their time. I don’t know if it was the network it was on or if it was before it’s time. Personally I think it could have done extremely well on ABC Family packaged with Kyle XY. I also think that, given more time, it could have really shone and become one of the WB’s better series. I really want to know what happens with Richard Clayton’s future attempts to take complete control of Greystoke Industries. I want to see more Lucy Lawless as Kathleen Clayton. And I want to see more Travis Fimmel doing everything exactly like I’d always imagined Tarzan would. Alas, that will never happen and my world is a little bit worse for it.
If you get the chance, you might just want to check this show out. It’s from the WB, so it’s not for everyone but at the very least you can rest assured that the one major storyline is resolved at the end. How often can you say that about a cancelled TV show?