Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Pulp Culture
'Jack of All
Trades' is
bad history


January 27, 2000
By Franklin Harris

Most Americans are already ignorant enough of their own country's history without television shows and movies making things worse. And the new half-hour adventure show "Jack of All Trades," opens vast, new territories of historical misinformation.

"Jack of All Trades" is half of the new Back 2 Back Action hour that executive producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert have launched to replace "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," which came to an abrupt end when its star, Kevin Sorbo, decided he'd had enough of playing the Greek demigod. (The other half is the futuristic "Cleopatra 2525." Both air locally Sunday mornings on WZDX Fox 54)

"Jack of All Trades" has a lot going for it. Raimi and Tapert have proven themselves as producers of entertaining, action-oriented fantasy shows. In addition to "Hercules," they created "Xena: Warrior Princess," and Raimi is the cult-favorite director of films like "A Simple Plan" and the "Evil Dead" trilogy. Also, "Jack" stars Bruce Campbell, who played the reluctant, wise-cracking hero of the "Evil Dead" films and is best known for his reoccurring role as Autolycus, the King of Thieves, in both "Hercules" and "Xena."

While not well-known outside of sci-fi and fantasy fandom, Campbell is easily one of the most likable actors in television today. He has a cult following that's always pestering him for information on when (or if) the next "Evil Dead" movie is coming out. A few truly delusional fans even want him to try to revive his underappreciated, and quite dead, western spoof, "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.," which ran on Fox for one season in 1993-94.

But enough about the good points of "Jack of All Trades." I come to bury the show, not to praise it.

"Jack's" premise is simple enough: In the early 1800s, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson sends American spy Jack Stiles to the East Indies to thwart French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's nefarious schemes in that region. As his cover, Stiles pretends to serve as the personal attaché to Emilia Rothschild (Angela Dotchin), who is herself a secret agent for the British.

This is all well and good but for one tiny thing: The politics are all wrong.

In the early years of the 19th Century, the United States was allied (loosely) with the French against the British.

During that period, diplomatic relations between America and England soured over everything from territorial disputes to British interference with American shipping. Meanwhile, Francophiles like Jefferson (who distrusted the British) still held out hope that Napoleon's reign might bring freedom to France.

Relations between America and France were warm enough during the Jefferson Administration that the United States was able to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France for a mere $15 million. (Although Napoleon's need for cash and his desire not to give the Americans a reason to dislike him also played a role in the transaction.)

The situation with England deteriorated to the point of all-out war. Surely Raimi and Tapert recall the War of 1812, during which the British burned the White House?

Granted, history has never been a strong point with Raimi and Tapert. "Hercules" and "Xena" are supposedly set during the same timeframe, but, in the last two seasons, the two shows have appeared to be centuries apart, with Xena crossing swords with Julius Caesar (around 50 B.C.) while Hercules deals with mythological characters (like Jason of the Argonauts) who are far older. (At least "Xena," unlike Shakespeare, correctly pegs Caesar as the bad guy.)

But when you're dealing with a setting that is more-or-less purely historical, and not an eclectic mix of history and mythology, a bit more effort is required.

Would it have been so much trouble to have Jack Stiles paired with a French secret agent and sent to the East Indies to foil the British? No, of course not. But these days it's easier to forget truth and history. We already hate the French, the Brits are our good pals now and everyone thinks Napoleon was a little twerp. Why not just play to the stereotypes and the ignorance?

After all, it's just a TV show.

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