I was halfway through the third episode of the WB’s Tarzan when my wife walked in and asked for a recap. Having just read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp classic Tarzan of the Apes, I was eager to explain all the ingenious ways this new series handles the source material—how cool it was that the cabin his dead father built has become a Park Avenue apartment wing—but I had already lost her attention. “God, he’s hot,” she said, looking at Tarzan’s star, former Calvin Klein underwear model Travis Fimmel *. “You should see if he’s in Tiger Beat yet. There’s a lot of 11-year-old girls who are going to love this show.”
You could say it’s about time. Since 1918, when Tarzan of the Apes was first adapted for the silver screen, the Tarzan character has yielded plenty of straight-up adventure for boys (in the Johnny Weissmuller films, this adventure seemed to require an inordinate amount of swimming); an attempt at Serious Cinema (the uneven 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes); and, in the case of Disney’s 1999 animated version, a paycheck for Phil Collins. (For a look at the many incarnations of Tarzan, click here.) Now the WB is doing for orphans raised by apes what Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Smallville did for vampires and Superman, namely reviving a tired franchise with a healthy dose of angst, melodrama, and forbidden love. Which is not to say there’s no action. Set in New York City, the new Tarzan also clambers around the skyline, tracks bad guys using superhuman senses, and beats people up with a savage elegance, like a gorilla who’s studied tai chi. Young girls and pregnant wives will indeed swoon over Fimmel’s brute metrosexuality, but he cuts an equally attractive figure for 35-year-old nerds.
Aside from moving Tarzan to New York, the creators have taken all kinds of crazy liberties. Jane Porter is no longer a 19-year-old English virgin but a by-the-numbers New York City police detective with a college-age sister and (briefly) a reluctant fiance. Jane can take care of herself, but she’s vulnerable enough to need the occasional last-minute rescue. Tarzan also helps her solve crimes. As for the Ape-Man, Fimmel fits in with a long line of hard-bodied pretty boys. He delivers corny lines like, “This is how I hunt,” but also does a convincing job of looking wounded and brooding in heavy rains. The show mercifully avoids irritating questions of identity and instead uses the Tarzan family history—the book’s unclaimed earldom has been replaced with $6 billion worth of stock in Greystoke Industries—as the set-up for a bitter power struggle between Tarzan’s villainous uncle Richard Clayton (Mitch Pileggi, né Agent Skinner) and his tough but loving aunt Kathleen (an almost unrecognizable Lucy Lawless).
Strangely, all these liberties only seem to illuminate the best elements of what by most accounts is a pretty poorly written series of novels. More modern interpretations have used the Tarzan universe to explore the self. The thrust of the WB’s version, though, is not finding the meaning of home or figuring out how to use the right fork, but reconciling how you feel about someone with how you’re supposed to feel about someone. Forget Fox’s Skin, Tarzan and Jane are the winners of this season’s Romeo and Juliet Award. Fimmel and Sarah Callies have the kind of genuine screen chemistry that reminds you how rare genuine screen chemistry is, and they are kept apart not by social station or by a pissing match between a histrionic DA and a watered-down pornographer, but by each other. As in the book, Jane knows she’s in love with Tarzan, but she can’t believe such a love could be possible. She understandably has no context for falling head-over-heels for a man who goes barefoot in Times Square. Tarzan, meanwhile, is a noble savage with a bad case of puppy love. He knows how to stroke her cheek, but has no idea how to bed her down. When they’re together you can tell she’s thinking, “What the hell is going on here? Who is this man? Why am I doing this to myself?” while he’s thinking, “Soft. Pretty.”
If anything needs work, it’s the B-plots. Every week the show introduces a new crime—an arsonist who torches the homeless, a gang of sexual predators in Central Park, a child taken for ransom—which allows Tarzan to get entangled in Jane’s work. Tarzan’s heightened abilities lead to some pretty absurd breaks, but then again in the first book he tracks Jane down from Africa to a forest fire in Wisconsin, so at least there’s a precedent. Better is how Tarzan’s involvement forces Jane to lie to protect him. Everyone except Jane thinks Tarzan is a menace, and as with Buffy’s complicated relationship with Angel, Jane is constantly pining and doubting herself and making questionable decisions. He infuriates her, but also captivates her. When they get together—often on a rooftop under the moonlight—it’s all approach and hesitate, hesitate and approach, and the only thing that could ruin all this delicious tension is a kiss.
Correction, Oct. 28, 2003: In an earlier version of this article, Dennis Cass misspelled the name of the actor who plays Tarzan. The actor’s name is Travis Fimmel, not Travis Trimmel. Return to the corrected sentence.