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'MythQuest' a fantasy worth watching

Sunday, April 14, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Sometimes the best TV shows come with little fanfare. They sneak up on you, bubbling up from seemingly nowhere.

PBS's "MythQuest" is such a program.


TV REVIEW

"MythQuest"

When: 7 tonight on WQED/WQEX.

Starring: Christopher Jacot, Meredith Henderson, Matthew Walker.

It's aired on WQED/WQEX since January, but it's not too late to watch. Aimed at "tweens," children ages 9 to 13, "MythQuest" will appeal to adults too with its fanciful melding of contemporary sensibilities and tales of yore.

In an era when many prime-time series - "The X-Files," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Alias" - create their own mythological story arcs, "MythQuest" shows viewers the ancient myths that still influence today's pop entertainment.

The fantasy-adventure series begins as siblings Alex (Christopher Jacot) and Cleo (Meredith Henderson) discover their archaeologist-computer scientist father, Matt (Joseph Krell), has been sucked through a portal into the world of myths stored on his computer's hard drive.

Alex and Cleo discover ways to get in and out of this CyberMuseum to search for Dad. When they're inside the computer, they inhabit the body of a mythological character.

In tonight's episode, "Isis and Osiris Part I," they use the information gained from Cleo's experience as the Oracle of Delphi to search for their father in ancient Egypt. Alex jumps into the myth world and finds himself living out the role of Osiris.

"MythQuest" mixes the historical settings of "Voyagers!" with the body inhabiting of "Quantum Leap" in a combination that will remind some viewers of PBS's "Wishbone" (minus the cute pooch). But "MythQuest" is clearly aimed at an older audience and concentrates on myths from myriad cultures (Greek, Native American, English, etc.).

The show has solid production values and a gentle, genuine sense of humor. When Alex becomes Osiris, he's expected to give a speech and cobbles together something from the great speeches he remembers: "Friends, Egyptians, countrymen ... I had a dream ... That's one small step for a god, one giant leap for Egyptian-kind ... I'm king of the world!"

Cleo, who has been confined to a wheelchair since an accident, can walk again when she enters the CyberMuseum, but she often remains outside the myths guiding her brother. In "Osiris," she reports to Alex that he's in danger because of the jealousy of Osiris' brother.

"Are we talking Jan and Marcia Brady jealous or Cain and Abel?" Alex asks.

The first season of "MythQuest," 13 episodes total, is a joint Canadian-German production that was filmed in Canada. Those episodes will repeat from the beginning starting May 26.

A second season is in the works for broadcast on PBS stations early next year, around the same time Random House begins publishing companion books to the series.

Executive producer David Braun said the goal with "MythQuest" is to re-tell mythological stories as they've been passed down through the ages.

"Heroes for today's kids are often athletes or movie stars, and those are unattainable things for most people. Those are mostly physical things you're given at birth," Braun said. "We wanted to present some stories with heroes who had feet of clay, who had flaws and sometimes didn't completely succeed. There are sometimes bittersweet qualities to these stories and those are things that keep myths going because they're realistic."

By sending two regular kids into the mythical world to live out these stories, Braun said the goal is for kids watching at home to be able to feel themselves in the role. Learning something along the way is an added benefit.

"I think if I had a show like this when I was in middle school and watched it for three years, it would be helpful going into high school knowing the mythic stories and story structure," Braun said.

In addition, Braun said the show's Web site (www.mythquest.tv) will further encourage reading and writing.

"One thing we'd like to bring out on the Web site is a story writing contest -- have kids write modern-day versions of these myths."

Though mythology often brings to mind Greek-Roman tales, Braun said the makers of "MythQuest" wanted to cast a wider net, including myths from Norse, Celtic and African cultures.

"We really worked very hard to keep this diverse," he said. "If we're successful, it should be fun every week because you don't know where you're going to go. We sort of have a travelogue aspect to our show."

When developing "MythQuest," some of those involved suggested doing the series in animation, which would be cheaper than the costly special effects that accompany live-action series. Plus, "MythQuest" has few standing sets because every week the setting is different, further adding to the cost. (Each episode has a $1 million budget, pricey by PBS standards.)

"The challenge is to use the new technology available today and do it as live-action," Braun said. "Cel animation is OK, but more and more kids are going to expect more than that. Five years ago this show could have only been done as animation. But we decided to do it in live action and create these backgrounds and use computer graphics to bring you into these worlds."

On "MythQuest," those worlds get more interesting every week.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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