Home > Literature, Pop Culture, TV > ATTENTION STARZ: I have your next historical-but-not-really drama right here

ATTENTION STARZ: I have your next historical-but-not-really drama right here


Followers of my Twitter feed will not be surprised to learn that I’ve been brushing up on my mythology – specifically, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, a sort of greatest-hits compilation of the gods and heroes of Greek, Roman, and Norse legend. What remains striking about virtually every one isn’t what they reveal about the values and mentalities of antiquity so much as what they reveal about timeless human nature. This isn’t a terribly original observation, but it’s true: the roots of all storytelling are here.

Anyway, the one I’m really loving, one of the preeminent stories of its time but lesser known today, is the saga of Theseus. He was Athens’s greatest hero, and dude was a straight-up knight of the realm: brave, just, and wise. And his story would make for a pretty kick-ass graphic novel or 13-episode TV series.

The details in most myths are fungible, stemming from an oral tradition written down by a handful of poets sometimes centuries after they originated. So the plot descriptions herein come from Hamilton’s volume; other versions may vary in certain particulars. But check out some of these TV-ready story elements:

The heroic origin: Theseus is raised in a tiny town in southern Greece, sired by King Aegeus of Athens who was, I guess, slumming it out in the boonies. When Theseus comes of age, he unearths a sword hidden by Aegeus behind a stone (yeah, a lot of bits and pieces of these myths have permeated throughout centuries of Western culture). Then he heads to Athens to seize his heroic destiny. He eschews safe sea passage in order to take the dangerous land route, violently dispatching every murderer and highway bandit along the way. That’s a whole episode right there. As a premise for TV drama, the mysterious hero who sweeps in to rid a town of its vicious criminal element is as reliable as they come.

The fiendish Big Bad: King Minos of Crete. Minos’s son was killed while on a quest to rid Athens of a dangerous bull – a quest given him by Aegeus. In revenge, Minos lays the smack down on Athens and demands a tribute of fourteen young men and women every nine years. These sad youths become midnight snacks for one of the most notorious monsters in antiquity, the Minotaur.

(For that extra dose of depravity, consider the origin of the Minotaur: A half-man, half-bull, who’s actually kind of Minos’s stepson, because Minos’s wife was cursed by Poseidon and got it on with a…well, it wouldn’t clear Standards & Practices, that’s for damn sure.)

All kinds of father issues: When Theseus arrives in Athens, Aegeus at first doesn’t know this is his kid. But he does know that the people are head over sandals for the guy who’s been going “Walker Attica Ranger” on every lowlife in the kingdom. Fearing anyone that popular as a potential usurper, Aegeus wants this dashing stranger dead. Enter….

The femme fatale: Medea, a fairly notorious sorceress in Greece after Jason (of the Golden Fleece) rendered her a woman scorned. She’s influential in the Athenian court and wants to stay that way, so she’s plenty supportive of Aegeus offing his offspring. Nothing sells a network exec quite like a manipulative (and probably at some point topless) villainess.

The noble quest: In the best known part of Theseus’s bio, he journeys to Crete to conquer the Labyrinth, slay the Minotaur, and rescue the latest gaggle of young, attractive, toga-clad extras to be sent to their doom. Not coincidentally, this is also the part of Theseus’s saga most ripe for ornate production design and CGI bad guys.

The love interest: Behind every great man, etc. All of Theseus’s bravery and ability to kill things would’ve meant bupkis in the Labyrinth without the help of Ariadne, Minos’s daughter who falls in love with him and betrays her tyrannical father. She holds the key to our strapping hero successfully navigating the diabolical maze. Bonus: now you also know why Ellen Page’s Inception character was the first person in like 2,200 years to share the name Ariadne.

The wacky sidekick: Hamilton describes Theseus’s friend Pirithous thusly: “quite as adventurous as Theseus, but by no means as successful, so that he was perpetually in trouble.” Pirithous is absolutely ancient Greek for “comic relief.” When Pirithous gets married, the ceremony is crashed by a gang of drunken Centaurs. When Pirithous is in the market for a rebound, he drags his wingman to the underworld to try and woo Persephone, Queen of the Dead, in what could easily be pitched as The Hangover in Hades. With clever writing, this guy could be a cross between Scrappy-Doo and Larry from Three’s Company. Who wouldn’t enjoy watching that character get slapped around by Calydonian boars and pissed-off Trojans every week?

Guest stars galore: Plenty of ancient Greece’s biggest celebrities cross into Theseus’s orbit at some point: Hercules; Oedipus; Jason of the Argo; Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Aphrodite and Artemis clash over a love triangle involving his son and his second wife, and any TV writer who can’t mine 45 minutes of soap-opery goodness out of that needs to hang up his laptop and call it a day.

Fact: Around 30% of why people watch historical dramas is so they can go, “Hey, I recognize that name!” and thereby feel capable of at least a second-place finish on Jeopardy! Frequent name-dropping is a recipe for success, and this tale is lousy with it.

And since this is based on mythology and not actual facts, you don’t even have to deal with complaints about creative liberties. Seriously, Starz: call me. I can whip up a spec pilot in a week.

Categories: Literature, Pop Culture, TV

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