Perfectly acceptable first-run syndicated tripe, as Xena meets Baywatch in the Disney/M-G-M Studios Florida jungles. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released Sheena: The Complete First Season, a 4-disc, 22-episode collection of the adventure fantasy's 2000-2001 premiere go-around. Based loosely on the iconic comic book character from Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, and starring former Baywatch babes Gena Lee Nolin and John Allen Nelson, Sheena didn't last long (only 35 episodes), and it's probably now only remembered by the small audiences that originally caught it helter-skelter in first-run syndication. However, as these low-budget television romps go, it's an agreeable time-waster, with brief-but-solid action, some good performances (handsome, wisecracking Nelson and cynical sidekick Kevin Quigley come off best), and plenty of teasing shots of stacked Nolin in various stages of undress to distract you from the routine, sometimes silly jungle adventure plots. The DVD box for Sheena: The Complete First Season says "Full Screen," but these episodes are presented here in not-bad 16x9 transfers (no bonuses, however).
Little Shirley Hamilton was six years old when her American archeologist parents, working in the darkest jungles of Africa, died in an earthquake cave-in. Adopted by shaman priestess Kali (Margo Moorer), newly-monikered Sheena (Gena Lee Nolin) soon learns the strange ways of African jungle life: vine-swinging, super-human strength, mixed martial arts fighting and knife-throwing, the ability to run as fast as a panther, and maintaining the softest, silkiest blonde hair―without frizz―in that terrible jungle humidity. Sheena learns something else, too, from kindly, wise Kali, a skill only Kali retains from her now-lost tribe: the ability to mind-meld with animals and then assume their shape. Enter American hustler Matt Cutter (John Allen Nelson), of Cutter Unlimited safari tours, with his bar-owning/mechanic sidekick, Mendelsohn (Kevin Quigley). Willing to ferry anyone anywhere for anything as long as a hefty fee is involved, Cutter is rescued one day by Sheena when he's double-crossed by an unscrupulous client, with Cutter observing Sheena's shape-shifting ability in the process. Now linked by this secret, the wary Sheena uses adventurer Cutter for her various adventures and rescue missions, many of them involving the nation's corrupt, shady President N'Gama (Jim R. Coleman), while she works out just how much she can trust the handsome rogue who can't seem to keep his eyes off her prominently displayed breasts.
I'll be honest: I sort-of remember promos for Sheena when it premiered back in 2000, but I don't think I ever watched an episode (and I promptly forgot all about it until these discs dropped in my mailbox). My impression of it at the time was probably that it continued on in the tradition of syndicated hits like Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules―series I wasn't into, anyway―so...why watch it (that shape-shifting jazz was probably the kicker)? I certainly loved all those old Tarzan and Bomba the Jungle Boy movies growing up―the 50s syndicated Sheena, Queen of the Jungle TV series with Irish McCalla was long off the dials in my TV market by the early 70s―and I'll even confess to having paid money to see Tanya Roberts' Sheena: Queen of the Jungle in the theaters back in 1984 (all I remember is the poster with Tanya Roberts riding a zebra...). So, other than the prospect of seeing Nolin prancing around in a skimpy outfit, I probably couldn't muster up any enthusiasm back in 2000 for tracking it down in cable's own jungle of myriad channels, with its hundreds of come-and-go, blink-and-you'll-miss-them programs.
As it plays now, some 13 years later, the word that best seems sum up Sheena is...."amiable" (pretty much the way you can take some other shows like Xena and Baywatch and Riptide that Sheena's producers, Douglas Schwartz and Steven L. Sears, worked on). It's pretty hard to screw up the jungle adventure subgenre if you get the absolute basics down. If the exotic settings are there, along with dangerous animals, local natives for color, outside threats to the Edenistic paradise, attractive leads sexually fired up by the heated jungle setting, and some outsized action, you pretty much are assured of delivering, at the minimum, uncomplicated, time-passing entertainment for those so inclined. And Sheena does all of that, reasonably well.
The original Sheena comic book character obviously owed its inception to Burroughs' Tarzan, and Burroughs' themes and stock situations set out in his books and their subsequent movie adaptations, have carried through as conventions that Sheena takes up with only superficial updating for the 21st century. Certainly the biggest change here from the original character is this Sheena's ability to actually assume the shape and abilities of the animals she mind-melds with, as opposed to just commanding them to do her bidding (a simple shouted, "Ungowa!" did a lot for Tarzan...). So if Sheena is thrown from an airplane by a diamond smuggler, she merely needs to see an eagle and poof!, she's an eagle, flying down to the ground. Viewers today may comment that this idea doesn't work in Sheena simply because of the rather poor-but-now-amusing melting/morphing CGI work employed here. I'm not sure this updating works, though, because it seems a completely unnecessary complication to the original character―a gimmick. After all, Sheena already possesses Tarzan-like speed, agility and strength, along with a deep spiritual connection with the jungle animals, making this shape-shifting nonsense down-right redundant. When you also factor in her assuming her alter-ego, the mythical Darak'Na (is some kind of animal transference involved here, too?), a legend among the tribesmen and the outside world, why does she also need to be a tiger or a panther? Covered in mud to disappear amid the foliage, and outfitted with Freddy Kruger claws, Sheena-as-Darak'Na is a pretty cool creation, running at hyper-speed and springing through the air, slashing her victim's faces and bodies like a jaguar on meth, and thrashing into submission even the biggest male opponents. Had the producers stuck with just the Darak'Na, they might have saved some bucks on that CGIing...and kept around the more skeptical viewers.
Other than that invention, Sheena's format should be fairly familiar to anyone who's seen even just a few Tarzan movies, with minor tweaks to bring the stock confrontations into the year 2000. Sheena, orphaned to the hostile, unfamiliar jungle, has learned to master it, with the help of Kali's council and supernatural gifts. And upon mastering it, she considers the jungle her new home, and since she isn't "civilized" by Western standards, she's free to defend her land using the "law" of same-said jungle. Various outside forces continually threaten her idyllic home, from diamond smugglers to the nation's corrupt, impulsive President, animal poachers looking for impotency cures, foreign governments and assorted scientists looking for deadly viruses and miracle cures, civil and tribal warfare, with plenty of beleaguered refugees roaming around, big bad oil companies (jesus), journalists and big game hunters looking to bag Sheena's Darak'Na, terrorists, black slavers, political assassins, and Island of Dr. Moreau/"Crocodile Hunter" wannabes. So with the often-coerced aid of Cutter (himself a threat to Sheena's jungle since she believes he merely wants to profit from it), she beats back each incursion, while dodging the usual assorted jungle pitfalls like earthquakes, deadly animals, and quicksand.
The supporting characters in Sheena are no less easily recognizable as Sheena's jungle girl crusader to even the most casual viewer. Cutter is your typical Rick from Casablanca adventurer, crossed with a bit of Indiana Jones, to create a cynical opportunist whose ready wisecracks are as rote as his eventually willingness to show his "human," caring side to Sheena. Mendelsohn is your stock grizzled, muttering, goofball sidekick, while Kali is your stock wise, patient, spiritual native mentor―certainly not standard issue during the early Tarzan movies, but just as clichéd today after decades of convention. Nobody deviates from the formula here, and everyone is cued up to interact in ways you know like the back of your hand, such as Sheena's and Cutter's teasing thrust and parry sexual dynamic―except for one brief drug-induced make-out session, it's strictly frustrated lust for Cutter this season. That stand-offishness may have hurt the show with viewers expecting either more romance or sex; keeping Nolin so defiantly hands-off when it comes to her sexuality may have seemed an interesting choice in terms of action heroine conventions...but it eventually distances the viewer from the strident character (you can't keep parading around the positively delectable Nolin in next to nothing while continually slapping back the hands of Nelson, who's a stand-in for all the voyeuristic viewers out there).
As for the stories here, they're predictable, too, in design and execution―but still enjoyable in a channel-surfing "hey, this looks okay," sort of way. If Sheena fails to keep a consistent tone (sometimes it's quite violent, with people getting their necks snapped and knives stuck in their faces, and other times it's as tame as a mid-70s Disney live-action feature), refusing to go deliberately campy when that might have helped, at least the episodes move along in a reasonably lively fashion (how can you not go spoofy when for example, one episode mixes a Nelson Mandela-like political prisoner with high-fashion models on a photo shoot?). Shot well on location at the former Disney/M-G-M Studios in Florida (looks as good as any other TV presentation of fake Africa I've seen), the interior sets look ridiculously false (how about sponsor Bass Pro Shops' completely unexplained sign so prominently displayed in Cutter's office?), but the action scenes are well-designed and vigorous, while everyone remembers to have at least one shot per episode of Nolin in a cable-safe, almost semi-nude situation. Pouty-mouthed Nolin may not be Maggie Smith, but she's at least game, and she looks great in an animal skin onesie, while Nelson, also a former Baywatch alumni who shows a facility with light comedy here, is pretty ripped himself for those so inclined. I'm not sure watching these back-to-back (as I did) is the best way to enjoy Sheena, but if you're looking for something to zone-out to on the couch on a boring Saturday afternoon, you could do worse.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.