Tune in Tonight: "Wizards & Warriors"
One thing I’ve always loved about the entertainment industry is its commitment to running a property into the ground. Did a thing work? Keep making more of that thing until it no longer works, and sometimes beyond that. Audience good will is tested again and again—what do you mean, you’re tired of X-Men movies? Oh fine, we’ll wait a year or so and then just restart the whole thing, you’ll be sure to love it then.
That sort of tenacity is almost touching when it comes to properties that were never successful in the first place. Despite Dungeons & Dragons developing its own subculture and turning the fantasy genre upside down, as mainstream entertainment it was dead before it even made it out the door, thanks to a mostly forgotten cartoon and an atrocious live action film. Naturally, rip-offs fared even worse, with the TV movie Mazes & Monsters ending up a camp classic instead of the serious psychological drama it was meant to be, and 1983’s Wizards & Warriors, a series that did the ratings equivalent of walking into a crowded party, quietly clearing its throat, then backing out, unseen and unspoken about.
Wizards & Warriors was brought in as a mid-season replacement for another D.O.A. adventure series, Bring ‘Em Back Alive, a show that, along with the competing Tales of the Gold Monkey, cashed in on the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bring ‘Em Back Alive could at least claim plausible deniability, because it claimed to be based on a book written in 1930. Wizards & Warriors had no such claim, however—all it was missing was occasional cutaways to a bunch of teenagers sitting around a dining room table rolling dice and determining how much charisma a character needed to make it through a scene.
The pilot episode makes the puzzling decision to not bother establishing characters or setting. Scrolling text, or a cloaked elderly gentleman introducing some expository dialogue with “Long ago…” are fantasy clichés in and of themselves, but they do serve a valuable role, in that the audience isn’t expected to just figure out what’s happening on their own. By the end of the episode, I had no idea what the names of the rivaling kingdoms were, who several of the supporting characters were (or their roles in the plot), or what sort of history the hero and villain had with each other. This is all Basic Plotting 101, but presumably the screenwriters expected that viewers would be so taken with what was happening that not knowing why it was happening wouldn’t matter.
A further puzzling decision was made in casting Jeff Conaway, with a Leif Garrett shag haircut, as the hero, Prince Erik Greypool. Conaway often looks embarrassed, like he was forced to dress up for a Renaissance Pleasure Faire, and mostly lets his co-stars do the heavy lifting, particularly Walter Olkewicz as his sidekick Marko, and Duncan Regehr (best known for playing Count Dracula in The Monster Squad) as Prince Dirk Blackpool, his nemesis. Again, who these people are, what they are to each other, and what their motives might be (other than being the “good” and “bad” guys) are unclear, and the characters themselves aren’t interesting enough that it’s not important.
The episode takes place on Princess Ariel’s birthday, the most important day in all the land. The insufferably vapid and childish Princess (Julia Duffy) demands gifts from her many admirers, and Prince Dirk uses that as a perfect opportunity to cause chaos, planting a medieval version of a time bomb inside a unicorn statue. Prince Dirk sends his idiot brother, Geoffrey (Tim Dunigan), who’s besotted with Princess Ariel, to deliver the gift to her, and threatens to let the bomb detonate unless Princess Ariel’s father, King Baaldorf (Thomas Hill) signs over his kingdom. Prince Erik and Marko go on an adventure to find the bomb, unaware that it’s already on top of King Baaldorf’s castle being used as a wind vane. They successfully find the bomb and the kingdom is saved.
That’s it, that’s the whole show. During the preview for the next episode, the announcer asks “Can Greystone save the kingdom by rescuing the Princess from her captors?” I’m going to take a wild guess and say yes.
When it comes to sword and sorcery media, particularly that which was released in the 80s, describing something as “not as bad as it could have been” counts as high praise. When you go into a medieval adventure show where the hero is played by “a hickey from” Kenickie, you keep your expectations low, and I’m…happy(?) to say that Wizards & Warriors met and even slightly (like, by a hair) surpassed those expectations. At its best moments (such as a pretty good gag involving a bottomless pit), it feels like Mel Brooks Lite, and at its worst, it’s merely boring. The actors aren’t always on the same page as to what kind of show this is (Conaway plays everything straight, while Duffy stomps and screams like she’s playing Veruca Salt), but one can assume that hopefully by another couple episodes in everyone would have agreed.
Or not, the show only lasted eight episodes, and was replaced the following season by Cutter to Houston, a cash-in on the success of St. Elsewhere that lasted seven episodes, and was notable only for it co-starring an early in his career Alec Baldwin. This was, in turn, replaced by Whiz Kids, a cash-in on the success of WarGames that managed to make it to a whole eighteen episodes. It wasn’t until the following year that CBS finally landed something with the modestly successful Airwolf, a cash-in on the success of Knight Rider. And the machine just keeps on churning.
Original airdate: February 26, 1983