Now entering its second year of syndication, the adventure series SHEENA isn't just about a hot babe sprinting through the jungle in a loincloth. Well, there is that rather inescapable element, and it certainly can't hurt the ratings, but the series is more than just BAYWATCH AFRICAN STYLE even if one of its creators and star came from the late, lamented T&A showcase (co-creator Douglas Schwartz was one of the men behind BAYWATCH, while his partner Steven L. Sears helped to shape the pop culture phenomenon, XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS). Following the life of a young woman raised by a shamaness named Kali (Margo Moorer) in a fictitious African country, Maltaka, SHEENA blends high-octane excitement with social relevance...and loincloths of course.
Sheena herself is played by BAYWATCH alumna Gena Lee Nolin. According to Sears, Nolin has made great strides and impressed everyone with her swift development as an actress. As Sears himself admits, she may not be Olivier, but she's improved significantly.
"The thing that's cool about Gena is that she surprised the hell out of everybody, because BAYWATCH often gets a bad rap," says Sears. "When Gena auditioned for the role, I could see there was something there, but that it needed refinement. We hired an acting coach [to work with her]. She doesn't even know how good she is."
Nolin has to be good, since Sheena has quite a few issues to work out. From the early trauma of losing her parents to her destiny as a messenger to the western world, Sheena has a great deal on her plate.
"We take the very basic aspects of the character of Sheena," says Sears. "At age five, her [archaeologist/anthropologist] parents were killed in a cave-in. [She] was taken in by a lioness and a lion's cub, [who] took her to Kali." The last of the Kaya tribe (which dies out every 200 years), Kali recognized in Sheena the spirit necessary to carry the ideals of her tribe to western civilization, preserving their love of the natural world.
"It's a grand coming of age story," Sears continues. "Sheena has a destiny and a purpose." That purpose is blunted when a 14-year-old Sheena loses her lion cub friend to western mercenaries. The lion cub lays down its life for her and a fierce hatred is born.
"Sheena went to Kali and said, 'I now have an enemy - the western world,'" says Sears. "Kali now realizes she has someone who hates the world she has to put her back into."
Comparing Kali to other familiar gurus like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Mr. Miyagi of KARATE KID fame, Sears points to the enigmatic nature of Sheena's mentor and the struggles the young woman must face during the course of the series.
"Kali doesn't give you the answers, she gives you the signposts," says Sears. It sounds like Sheena will need plenty of them to keep her on the right path. "Our series is about this woman who has a duality of nature she's at peace with the animals and the environment, but she has this hatred and anger of the outside world...and she's fighting it."
The show also touches on many social and ecological issues, taking advantage of its African setting.
"One of the wonderful things about shooting a series [here is that] Africa has gone through every turmoil known to Man," says Sears. "[It's] a cauldron of social issues."
Last season featured episodes dealing with subjects as heady as modern slavery. According to Sears, the second season will ratchet up the action while exploring the characters a bit more. Given Sears' background shaping the story arcs for XENA, you can expect this series to mine its own mythology for more complex storytelling as well.
"[In the second season], we've found our stride," says Sears. "Everything has gelled. We have a firm fix on our characters. We've now started to explore our characters a lot more, and in doing that we've been getting in some very interesting guest stars [to examine] the characters in relationship to their African background and to each other. We'll also be exploring more about the mysticism of Africa."
Upcoming episodes for the second season include "Rendezvous," in which Cutter (John Allen Nelson) encounters a rival for Sheena's affection in the person of Peter Reckell, Bo Brady from DAYS OF OUR LIVES. Another installment will feature Muhammad Ali's daughter, Laila, in an inspired bit of casting as an aspiring boxer. A ROMANCING THE STONE/INDIANA JONES style romp titled "Treasure of the Sienna Mende" will guest-star Alexandra Tydings (Aphrodite from XENA) and Mira Furlan (Delenn from BABYLON 5), directed by Furlan's husband, Goran Gajic.
"Goran has a very interesting style," says Sears. "He's also directed OZ for HBO."
One early highlight will almost certainly be "Feral King," a twist on the classic Tarzan tale that features former TV Tarzan Ron Ely as the villain! Sears has high praise for the star and notes a fan-pleasing tip of the hat that will turn up in the show's dialogue.
"Ron has retired and he's writing novels," says Sears. "There's this great line where he says, 'That guy is no Tarzan. Take my word for it!'"
Talking with Sears, you might get the impression that he knows everything about the series, and you'd be right. Sears has been told by executives that he is the most prepared producer they've ever met, and there's a very good reason for his exhaustive work on the mythology of SHEENA.
"I have a whole history for all of the characters which has yet to unfold," says Sears. "Some of that is going to start happening this next season, especially with Kali." Why all the detailed work? "I just did five years of XENA, and I've appeared at these conventions. They're going to ask me questions - I have to be able to answer them. That's why I know these details."
Sears hopes that his attention to detail and the show's overall quality will allow it to continue to build a following even if it's not the most visible series on the fall slate.
"I want the show to be an undiscovered wonder as opposed to a well-publicized flop." Hey, it ain't Shakespeare it's SHEENA!