For years, Xena: Warrior Princess fans have discussed the possibility of Xena appearing on the small screen again, whether as a made for TV movie, TV miniseries, or a resumption of the TV series, always with Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor reprising the roles of Xena and Gabrielle respectively. Less commonly, fans discussed the idea of a reboot with a totally new cast. Ideally, most fans agreed, Lucy and Renee would come back in whatever form the new version took, but hope for Xena’s return dwindled as time passed since the show’s ending in 2001.
Despite continued support from many of the actors and producers associated with the show for Xena’s renewal, there didn’t seem to be any interest by studios in picking the series up. The final Xena convention, held last year, was a bittersweet farewell to a groundbreaking series that meant so much to so many queer women.
Then last week, in the wake of fan outcry over the death of Lexa on The 100, writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach announced NBC was interested in rebooting the series with a new cast and himself as showrunner, this time making explicit the romantic relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. The news swept across the internet, with headlines such as “Xena Reboot Series to Turn Implied Homoerotic Undertones into Glorious Homoerotic Overtones.” Finally, the lesbian community might get to see Xena and Gabrielle in a publicly acknowledged relationship! It’s just what we’ve always wanted…but is this the way we wanted it?
A reboot has some intriguing possibilities, and Grillo-Marxuach seems very well versed in the show. Before the show can reach production, however, first it must overcome some major hurdles that may be significant enough to prevent it from progressing past the conceptualization stage. The first, and possibly largest, hurdle is the reluctance of major networks to have a queer main character out the gate. Lena and Stef on The Fosters, Lizzy on One Big Happy, and Amy on Faking It are evidence that it can be done, but they may be an exception rather than the rule. In addition, on both Faking It and The 100, the queer main character has had sexual relations with both genders, unintentionally making them more palatable to viewers uncomfortable with exclusively lesbian characters. NBC has tentatively committed to the Xena reboot, but can pull out at any time if it assesses the backlash is not worth pursuing the show.
According to GLAAD’s Accelerating Acceptance 2016 report, 29% of Americans are uncomfortable seeing a same-sex couple holding hands (this was an astounding 36% in 2014). 37% are uncomfortable with their children having a lesson on LGBT history in school. If NBC ultimately airs the Xena reboot, it will do so knowing that it will probably begin with an approximately 25% smaller potential viewer base than any other new show; that a large a percent of viewers will automatically reject a show that puts a queer character front and center from the beginning. And even though the show will have a pre-established Xena fanbase, many fans will also reject the reboot. It’s an undesirable place for a ratings-focused studio to start from, and I’m not certain NBC is up for it yet.
The second hurdle is figuring out how to successfully take iconic characters and recast them without viewers rejecting the new cast as being cheap imitations of the originals. Characters are often iconic because of the actors who played them. Would Friends be just as popular if it was rebooted with an entirely new cast playing Ross, Rachel, Joey, Monica, and Chandler?
Xena was successful in large part because Lucy and Renee breathed humanity and credibility into the characters. They had an incredibly dynamic, unique chemistry between them that would be hard to replicate. Viewers who have never seen the original Xena: Warrior Princess might go in with no pre-conceived notions, but viewers who have loved and been intimately involved with the original for years are likely to be extremely tough critics, and almost certainly have the ability to quickly shut down a reboot that doesn’t meet their exacting expectations.
Grillo-Marxuach has acknowledged the importance of Lucy and Renee to the original show, but so far appears to have downplayed the extent to which the show may have failed without them. Recasting those roles will be incredibly tricky. He’s discussed in an interview the clothing the Xena and Gabrielle will wear on the new show, but not how to find the right chemistry between the two actresses. What if Xena is blonde and Gabrielle is dark haired? What if Xena is shorter than Gabrielle? What if one is a person of color? To new viewers, these questions are irrelevant, but to longtime fans, they’re crucial. Once the show is aired, it almost certainly will succeed or fail based on the chemistry between the two leads.
The third and final hurdle is one of tone and audience. The original Xena was campy. In the season five episode “Married with Fishsticks,” characters are fancifully re-imagined as mermaids. In season three’s “Fins, Femmes, and Gems,” a spell cast by Aphrodite causes Xena to become obsessed with fishing, Gabrielle with herself, and Joxer to believe he’s an ape man. For every serious, powerful episode (season three’s “One Against an Army”), there’s an “Old Ares Had a Farm.” Clearly, this is not to be the tone of the new show.
Grillo-Marxuach has said in his version there will be a tweaking of characters, backstory, and morality, presumably leading to a grittier, more intense show. Viewers familiar with The 100, Game of Thrones, and other relatively recent productions will recognize this format. Although original Xena fans may frown upon a darker tone with no lighthearted moments (“In Sickness and in Hell” makes me laugh so hard I cry, every time), an aggressive, darker Xena might actually be a good way to draw in a wider viewership who is unfamiliar with the original Xena but likes this type of darkly violent show.
A quick poll of my friends who watched Xena indicates they’re against a reboot. Myself, I’m an ardent Xena fan. I have watched every episode multiple times and even went to the second to last Xena convention as a must-do bucket list item. My friends and I are the ideal target audience for a reboot…but I don’t think I want a reboot either, for two reasons: First, Lucy Lawless is Xena. That growling voice. Those sometimes wild eyes. The long legs and long black hair.
And Renee O’Connor is Gabrielle. That naivety and adorableness that matures over years into peace and self-confidence.
Both had spectacular comedic delivery, and a deep, abiding respect for each other that was obvious to viewers. When Lucy and Renee said that Xena and Gabrielle were soulmates, viewers believed it because it was obvious in how the characters interacted with each other. Chemistry like theirs happens once a decade, and I worry that the new show won’t be able to measure up either in credibility of the actresses or in terms of their chemistry with each other.
The second reason I’m wary of the reboot is that television shows, even when they have the best intentions, often have a way of disappointing viewers. As this month’s controversy over The 100 has shown producers often feel compelled to drive storylines in directions that will generate controversy or drama. (By the way, I’m clinging to the theory that Lexa was an identical twin, or that she somehow comes back to life in the finale and isn’t really dead.)
In the case of Xena, because the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle was technically subtextual, the relationship couldn’t be broken up. You can’t sink a ship that doesn’t exist. Therefore, for six seasons, Xena and Gabrielle were able to have their relationship, even when Gabrielle was briefly married to Perdicas and Xena was flirting with Ares. If the reboot makes the relationship explicit, the relationship is likely to eventually fall into the problem faced by all one true pairs (OTP): OTPs can’t be in happy, loving relationships forever. Shows need drama, and to do so, they break their OTPs up, then let them get back together. If the new Xena and Gabrielle have relationship troubles and break up for awhile, maybe with Gabrielle rebounding with an Amazon from her adoptive tribe, is this something that would align with countless fanfics and be accepted by the original Xena viewers, or will we all be sharpening our pitchforks, ready to storm the studio? What if Xena has a one-night stand with Ares? Oh hell no. I’d rather have the memory of something great, even if the relationship was never really acknowledged on screen, than a pale imitation that leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
All that said, if the reboot show does launch, I will give it a chance and try to be open-minded. I will be curious to see who is cast and what chemistry they produce. Alycia Debnam-Carey and Eliza Taylor of The 100, among others on TV right now, are proof that there are actors who can carry the weight of portraying a strong female leader in a fantasy/sci-fi-type setting, and I would love to see another strong, queer female character on TV who wields a sword and fights for justice. I’m also curious about what sort of character tweaks Grillo-Marxuach is envisioning—I’m guessing we’ll see much more dark Xena and her redemption—what story arcs, and frankly, what a rebooted ancient Greece looks like.
So what do you think? Does the show have a snowball’s chance in Tartarus?