Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Campy, Delightful And Hopeful: Wonder Woman Season 1 Is Still Worthwhile!

The Good: Good characters, Decent acting, Moments of plot, Liberal values
The Bad: Often campy, Melodramatic deliveries, Often predictable plots, Light on DVD bonus features.
The Basics: The first season of Wonder Woman is unintentionally funny too often, but is still surprisingly worthwhile!

As my loyal readers of my reviews know, 2010 was my Wonder Woman Year, a year in which I did everything I could to read everything pertaining to Wonder Woman that I could. I read a bunch of graphic novels, inspected Wonder Woman toys and even watched the animated feature Wonder Woman (reviewed here!). But despite the pressure to produce on my new blog, I was still delighted when I received the late-70s television series Wonder Woman on DVD. The first season of Wonder Woman was somewhat incongruent with the rest of the series, but still had some real merits. Objectively, though, Wonder Woman is only slightly better than average and the first season strays too far into the camp field. Even so, Wonder Woman does not fall so hard into that field to be considered on the hokey level as Batman.

Wonder Woman is an hour long drama set in the 1940s and follows Princess Diana of Paradise Island. The first season is comprised of a dozen episodes and the pilot, which establish the comic book heroine as a viable television franchise. Indeed, it is almost shocking how Wonder Woman has not been followed up on cinematically or on television since. The truth is that Wonder Woman may be dated, but it is fun, tells a decent hero story and has a protagonist who is not just remarkably easy on the eyes, but is substantive in every meaningful way.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Wonder Woman, the television show reboots the mythology of the comic book character starting with Steve Trevor, a pilot in World War II. While flying to fight the Germans, his plane is shot down by a Nazi over Paradise Island, an island whose population is entirely women. While the Queen determines that Trevor does not pose a threat to the Amazon way of life, she decides to deport Steve back where he came from. For that, a contest is demanded and the winner of the challenges is the Queen’s disguised daughter, Diana. Diana then makes the trip to the United States where her provocative outfit garners her stares, but she is able to return Steve Trevor to a hospital. After a brief stint as an entertainer deflecting bullets with her enchanted bracelets, Diana takes on the alter ego of Diana Prince and works as Steve Trevor’s assistant at the War Department.

From her desk in the War Department, Diana Prince is able to monitor significant events and intervene as Wonder Woman in order to stop Nazi subterfuge, save Steve Trevor from Nazi attacks, Etta Candy from donuts and General Blankenship from humiliation. Over the course of the first season, Diana excuses herself from missions so Wonder Woman can thwart a Nazi spy working at the War Department, use her powers to make a trained killer gorilla docile and help an honest rancher feed the American soldiers by stopping a cattle smuggling ring. Wonder Woman is also visited by her precocious younger sister and has to rescue Paradise Island from a Nazi invasion! Wonder Woman also has to thwart an alien invasion when an advanced race decides to pass judgment on humanity based on how they treat one another and extraterrestrial visitors!

Wonder Woman is the quintessential feminist super hero (or heroine). She uses reason more often than her fists (arguably why a Wonder Woman film has been so long delayed; to be true to the character would not have a big battle, but rather Wonder Woman talking her enemies out of their actions) and her super powers in the television series are fairly limited. Her powers are derived, in part, from a power belt and allow her super speed, super strength and some measure of accelerated healing (she never stays down very long!). In addition, Wonder Woman is outfitted with two essential tools. The first is her lasso of truth, which is not explicitly a divinely created tool in this season and her bracelets. Wonder Woman’s bracelets are made of an indestructible metal which allows her to deflect bullets with them and which become the target of Nazi intrigue.

Unlike the comic book version of Wonder Woman, the character of Wonder Woman in this season of the show is not psychologically fully realized or a truly strong and independent woman. Instead, she spends the first season mooning over Steve Trevor from her yeoman’s desk and she only plays at professionalism until the men’s backs are turned. Then, she seems content to gossip with Etta Candy. Etta Candy is almost exactly like her comic book incarnation with her obsession with food and her own undying love for Steve Trevor. On its own, Wonder Woman Season 1 seems to have equal parts female stereotype and feminism realized.

Wonder Woman is a great character to poke fun at gender inequality and the first season of Wonder Woman has no problem doing that. The fact that the show was set in the 1940s gave it license to disguise contemporary (late 1970s) feminist issues into the plots with some safety. Wonder Woman speaks openly about equality and the strength of women. She frequently uses the failures of her enemies to esteem her skills to their own disadvantage. She is clever, funny and smart in a way that few female protagonists have ever been illustrated. And yes, Lynda Carter looks like a million bucks in the Wonder Woman outfit (in the interest of full disclosure, Carter as Wonder Woman might have been my very first crush as a kid and I still remember her Mabeline lipstick commercials from around the same time). That said, the show is far more than just the outfit and the twirling that was used to fade Diana Prince in her uniform into Wonder Woman and her . . . costume. The show promotes progressive values.

Even so, the special effects are remarkably low budget and they are often cheated due to the lack of CGI (it hadn’t even been conceived when these episodes aired!). Wonder Woman stops trucks with her bare hands, deflects bullets using remarkably good squib work and leaps off buildings with some (I’m assuming) wire tricks that look great while she is jumping down and incredibly silly when she leaps up. Still, the show does not fall into a lot of the ridiculous early-80s conceits, like the television series V (reviewed here!) did with things like hubcaps constantly flying off cars.

As for the acting, Richard Eastham and Beatrice Colen do fine in the supporting roles of Blankenship and Candy, respectively. The problem they have as actors is that they are written to be archetypes, mostly designed to deliver exposition for the audience. They do this perfectly well, but without any distinction that allows them to do more than deliver melodramatic exposition.

Somewhat better off is Lyle Waggoner as Steve Trevor. Waggoner has both the acting chops to pull off the serious role of Trevor. Waggoner has to credibly be a war hero and he does that quite well. He has a serious side that plays well and he delivers his lines, even the ones with military jargon without having to fall back on his looks. Waggoner is more than just a sidekick and the risk Wonder Woman initially takes is having him open the show. Considering he carries the opening before Diana is introduced, there is a lot to be impressed with from his acting!

But it all rests on Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman and Diana Prince. Carter is able to play Wonder Woman as an often hapless heroine, baffled by the actions of men around her and the way that humans treat one another. The danger of her initially naïve and idealistic performance is that when Wonder Woman has to present serious ideals and stern warnings that she will not be taken seriously. That is not the case, though. Instead, she manages to play strong and stern with her eyes and body language with an equally convincing control of her body language.

On DVD, Wonder Woman Season 1 comes with minimal bonus features. There is a season retrospective and a discussion on how the series came to be produced. There is also a commentary track on the pilot episode which has the executive producer and Lynda Cater describing the project. The bonus features are all right, but fans are likely to want more.

Still, the first DVD set of Wonder Woman is enough to give fans a visual treat that is smart and funny, even if it is a bit dated and occasionally silly.

For other Wonder Woman reviews, please check out my takes on:
Contagion By Gail Simone
Circe action figure
Mythos By Carol Lay


For other television series reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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