In the past one hundred years, there have been many versions of Tarzan – from the big screen to the small one – but in 2003 the WB Network decided to update the Tarzan story to a modern setting, with a whole new origin story, and with the added twist of making it part police procedural. That is certainly an interesting idea – as is casting an Australian ex-Calvin Klein model in the title role – but the show only lasted eight episodes before being cancelled, which begs the question, “Just how bad was it?” The show’s creator Eric Kripke, who would later go on to create the long-running show Supernatural, has made his feelings rather abundantly clear about his feelings towards his Tarzan outing, calling it, “A piece of crap.” But is it really that bad?
The pilot begins with a very good cold open, somewhere in New York City a half-naked man is tied to a table in some kind of lab, and he is surrounded by nervous men with guns. A man in a lab coat enters the room to “borrow” some blood from the bound man, but apparently, the captive does not seem too keen on this procedure being performed.
The man is of course Tarzan (Travis Fimmel), and he explodes out of the operating room in a bid to escape this high-rise prison. I’ll certainly give the producers credit, at least for one thing, and that is in providing fight choreography that is bloody brilliant. Travis Fimmel and the stunt team do fantastic work, and of the things that go wrong with this show, the action scenes are not one of them. Tarzan flees to the roof of this building – where he must take out even more security forces – before finally escaping. The last shot of the cold open is a stunning reveal, one that really hooks fans of Tarzan in.
We are then introduced to Detective Jane Porter (Sarah Wayne Callies), who lives in a nice Manhattan apartment with her younger sister Nicki (Leighton Meester). Jane’s introduction gives me my first signs of foreboding; we first see her working out – so that we can believe she could be a credible badass if needed – but then in the very next moment, she’s showing her sister a news article about her boyfriend Detective Michael Foster (Johnny Messner), and dreaming about someday being as good as him at police work. Feminism on television still needed a little work.
Said boyfriend is trying to catch this crazy arsonist known as The Inferno Killer (Kevin Durand), and even Jane’s partner, Detective Sam Sullivan (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), is jealous of such a high profile case. Sam also thinks that this case, and an old case of his own, could be connected, but their Captain (Gary Chalk) doesn’t have time for such silly speculations, and he assigns them to more suitable cases, like tracking down a pack of dogs that are terrorizing a neighbourhood. It’s while investigating this case of canine malfeasance that Jane first encounters Tarzan. They discover this half-naked guy in an alley eating stolen food with a bunch of dogs, and Jane’s immediate reaction is to chase after and attempt to arrest this dude. (The NYPD is apparently harsh on the homeless problem, as that’s what Tarzan first looked like at a glance) When he escapes up the side of a building, with the agility of a monkey, she realizes this is no ordinary hobo.
Jane strains to run him down, but when she tries to attempt a jump between buildings to follow him, she doesn’t quite make it. Tarzan has to come back to rescue her, pulling her up with just one hand, and instead of a thank you Jane pulls out her gun and tells him, “You are under arrest.” Then she faints. sigh Just ten minutes in and Jane is certainly not showing us that she is any kind of supercop. Would any cop show out there, with a male in this role, have had him faint like this? Unless it was for some comic relief moment the answer is definitely no. In the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films Jane was most definitely from the “damsel in distress” school of femininity, but why would a show that is updating the story, and taking a positive step by making Jane a police detective, go in that direction? In the Tarzan books by Burroughs Jane eventually became a badass in her own right, so why do so many adaptations fail to make her a strong independent character? And what does this show’s Tarzan do when faced with an unconscious and attractive woman?
What in the bloody hell? This does not make me sympathetic to whatever plight is facing this Tarzan, feeling up an unconscious woman is not cool in anyone’s book, and it is not helped by the fact that throughout this episode he is constantly petting or smelling her hair. as if personal space isn’t something he is familiar with. And sure you are all saying, “But Mike, he was raised in the jungle, and doesn’t know any better!” And you’d be right, but my problem is not with Tarzan’s action but with Jane’s. She just gets a dreamy faraway look in her eyes, instead of slapping the creep as any self-respecting person would do.
Before Jane can embarrass herself further a black helicopter arrives, a group of Greystoke security goons rappel down, and Tarzan is shot with a tranq and then taken away. A dropped locket – containing a picture of John Clayton, his wife and little boy – leads her to Greystoke Industries and its powerful CEO Richard Clayton (Mitch Pileggi). Jane learns from Richard that years ago his brother – the then head of Greystoke Industries – disappeared while on a photo safari with his family, while they were flying across the Congo. Years later Richard and his people discovered the crashed plane, but also nearby was their surprisingly not dead son John – now all grown up and looking like an underwear model – and who is mentally unstable as well as mute. Richard takes Jane to see John/Tarzan, but he is a bit shocked when the supposedly mute man leaps up and says, “Hello.”
Later Tarzan once again escapes his uncle’s penthouse mansion – he should really look into better security – and then he crashes a romantic dinner date between Jane and her detective boyfriend. Now how did he find her in amongst all the buildings in New York City you may ask, As far as I can tell he has some kind of “Spider-Sense” or I guess “Jane-Sense” would be more accurate.
Jane and Tarzan take a walk through Central Park, and when she asks how Tarzan found her, his response is, “I hunt. I hunted for you.” And for some reason that is considered romantic, and not incredibly creepy. This is my biggest problem with this pilot, they rush the romance element way too fast. Travis Fimmel and Sarah Wayne Callies – who we now know as Lori from The Walking Dead – do have excellent chemistry together, but their love story is treated almost like a psychic bond, and for me that makes it infinitely less interesting. Though to be fair their psychic bond is the only real way to explain how when Jane cries out in terror that Tarzan can hear from inside a jail cell across town. As mentioned the action sequences are excellent, and when Tarzan must take on the Inferno Killer it’s a real showstopper, but Jane herself just gets knocked down and pinned beneath a shelving unit.
As pilots go it’s got a lot going for it. Great action, a mystery to solve, and a new mythology to the Tarzan story, all the trimmings for good television, and it does open up several interesting questions. What nefarious reasons does Richard Clayton have for hunting down his nephew and keeping him locked away? Will Jane dump her fiancée for this jungle dreamboat? Can Tarzan make a home for himself in the concrete jungle? So join me over the next eight weeks as I take a look at these eight episodes of a series forgotten by most, or at least Eric Kripke wishes were forgotten by most.
You can read all my reviews for this show here: Tarzan: The Complete Series.
Tarzan (2003) Pilot
Episode Rank - 7.5/10
In this pilot Eric Kripke and directer David Nutter take the Tarzan premise into interesting directions, but his Jane needs a bit more backbone if she’s going to be a convincing police detective.