Hercules: The Legendary Journeys followed the life of the legendary hero played by Kevin Sorbo throughout ancient Greece as he fought tyrants, monsters, and the machinations of the Olympian gods with the help of his trusty sidekick Iolaus. It never took itself too seriously, it started out cheesy and got campier and campier as it went on, but it retained a good sense of humor throughout its run (And it had a kickass theme song). Hercules was closely tied to its spinoff Xena: Warrior Princess, which soon overshadowed it in popularity. It also spawned another spinoff, Young Hercules, starring a young Ryan Gosling, which didn't fare quite as well.The show began life as a series of TV movies which proved successful enough to go on to a series (which had a good deal of cosmetic and thematic differences, the events of the movies were not referred to in the show proper), and being filmed in New Zealand gave it an unprecedented level of Scenery Porn that other shows couldn't manage. It put a new spin on Greek Mythology, deliberately avoiding the white togas normally associated with this time period. It was delightfully tongue-in-cheek (including a hearty serving of Anachronism Stew and lots of awful Puns) and impressively epic in its scope, using a lot of Wire Fu action sequences. It was also one of the first television series to make extensive use of CG creatures.It was created by Sam Raimi of Evil Dead fame, who would later go on to direct the Spider-Man movies. Speaking of Evil Dead, Bruce Campbell directed a few episodes (Including the series finale), and played Autolycus. As an interesting note, the writing duo Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci got their start on this show, and have continued to complete a nerd trifecta of scripting movies for Mission: Impossible, Transformers and Star Trek.
This series provides examples of:
Accidental Misnaming: A Running Gag in "War Bride" is Princess Melissa constantly getting Iolaus' name wrong and calling him "Iolfus." She gets it right in the end, though Hercules can't resist a little fun with it himself.
Hercules: I was just starting to get used to "Doofus." Iolaus: Hey, that's "Iolfus."
Acting for Two: "Yes, Virginia, There is a Hercules" had Kevin Smith portray both Ares and show writer Jerry Patrick Brown. One particular shot used Double Vision. Kevin Smith also played Hercules' full human brother Iphicles.
Michael Hurst played Iolaus and a look-alike distant cousin in "King For A Day" and "Long Live The King." The one time he played Iolaus and Charon in the same episode was "Highway To Hades." He also played Widow Twanky and while Iolaus never appeared in those episodes, Hurst did play a one-scene homeless man role in Twanky's last appearance.
A Form You Are Comfortable With: Subverted in "Be Deviled," where a Devil-like being takes the form of Serena. She claims it's because Hercules would find it pleasing, but Herc finds it insulting instead. Later, as we learn more about her character, it's clear "Serena" did this solely to mock him.
Alas, Poor Villain: When Strife is killed by Callisto in "Armageddon Now," Ares is visibly upset:
"He wasn't so bad. He-he tried real hard. He was just no good at his job." (to Callisto) "You didn't have to do this!"
Anachronism Stew : Where to begin... probably that it was done intentionally for Rule of Funny. Apparently, the big rule in the writers room was "Anything B.C." though even that seems to go out the window pretty early, as season 3 episode 9 "A Star To Guide Them" has Hercules and Iolaus witness the birth of Jesus.
Ancient Grome: Hercules goes by his Roman name; all the other gods go by their Greek names.
Possibly because his Greek name, Heracles, has the ironic meaning "Hera's Glory." Even if people do not know the meaning, it would sound odd to have his name sound so similar to hers.
Except Cupid who also goes by his more well-known Roman name rather than the actual Greek Name Eros.
Eris. You don't know who is Eris? Yup, that's exactly why she went as "Discord". (Same for Strife, who is neither Phobos nor Deimos.)
And I Must Scream: In "Descent," Hercules discovers Dumuzi (gatekeeper to the Sumerian Underworld) is using human souls as nourishment.
And Starring: After becoming a regular, Michael Hurst had a "Also Starring" credit. And as seasons wore on, Bruce Campbell and Robert Trebor got this kind of treatment - varying between "And ... as" or "Special Guest Star."
Ape Shall Never Kill Ape: Despite their supposed immortality, the Olympians are powerful enough to kill each other. To prevent ensuing chaos, however, Zeus long ago forbid the Olympians from ever doing so and promised severe punishment for any that do. He later included Hercules into this rule to protect him from his godly enemies.
This might be more so because of 2 factors. Firstly, there are a few ways to kill Gods with special items that can be used on any God, and the last thing Zeus wants is certain individuals looking for those items, squabbling over them, and them falling into the hands of his enemies; and secondly, a real all-out fight between Gods would probably wreck most of Greece, if they were lucky. This also means that Gods who try to thwart Hercules can only do so in a certain, scope, to avoid killing him.
Archangel Michael: Appears in the appropriately titled fifth season finale, "Revelations." This version of the character (along with his actor) later had appearances on Xena.
Ascended Extra: Iolaus. When the character died in the first TV-Movie, Hercules and the Amazon Women, he was originally going to stay dead. But Michael Hurst impressed the producers with his performance, so they re-wrote the ending to leave Iolaus alive. The only reason Iolaus doesn't appear in the next three movies is because they were written before the change was made. Iolaus returned in the fifth movie and was a recurring character in the first two seasons before becoming a regular in Season 3.
Back from the Dead: Iolaus, repeatedly. Lampshaded in "For Those Of You Just Joining Us" after Rob Tapert suggests killing Iolaus again, as Liz Friedman responds, "How original. We've only done it twice already."
Iolaus lampshades this himself when he is bitten by a vampire:
Blood Knight: Xena, originally. She is - hands down - the greatest warrior in either Hercules or Xena, and she really liked her job. That she actually turned away from something she enjoyed to do what was right shows a very strong will.
Bond Villain Stupidity: The Olympians are far stronger than Hercules, but often instead rely on mooks to face him. Whenever they actually do fight him directly, he wins despite their purported power. This, however, is justified (at least by Season 4) in that the reason the Olympians pull their punches is because of Zeus. He granted Hercules special protection and the others know violating it means serious punishment.
Ares in particular, is aware of this. Hence why the plans of both himself and Hera regarding Hercules have to be mindful of not actually putting him in enough danger to kill him, and yet try to hurt him at the same time. For Ares, whose plans usually are either A) seduction, B) kill, or C) wage war, this is very frustrating and stretches his limited creative ability rather thinly.
Break the Haughty: Princess Melissa in "War Bride" starts off as very spoiled, whiny, self-centered and greatly romanticizing war. Being kidnapped, hoofing it through wilderness and having to tend to wounded soldiers causes a sizable shift in her character and priorities.
Broken Aesop: all over the place, but not as many as you would think considering the nature of this show.
Despite espousing (repeatedly) that everyone should be themselves and beauty is on the inside, Hercules only has love affairs with beautiful women. To his credit, Herc only goes for people he falls in love with (and has rejected the likes of King Thespian's Daughters). Still, it's all off-putting compared to the moral of "Protean Challenge" or such.
There were a number of episodes where the moral was essentially "war bad" or "murder bad", but fundamentally both Hercules and Iaolus make their living as warriors, and they essentially never actually check a given monster to see if it's sentient before ganking it.
It helps that, as a camp comedy show, when one writer contradicted another it was usually lampshaded, and there are a number of episodes specifically pointing out the failure of other episodes, such as the introduction of Typhon and the explicit acknowledgement that Echidna's hatred of Hercules is pretty much entirely justified, since he murdered all of her children before the beginning of the series. There is also some evidence that the changes are actual personal growth (he stops hiring on to wars as the first three seasons progress) rather than hypocrisy.
Brother-Sister Incest: Like in mythology, this cropped up, though the writers seemingly relied on Fridge Logic for the viewers to realize it. Ares and Discord have a blatant sexual relationship on this series, and the Young Hercules movie confirmed her to be Hercules' sister (which makes her Ares', as well). And in different episodes, Aphrodite and Hephaestus are confirmed to be children of Hera.
You can kind of skirt around this in that the Gods have a rather...odd concept of the 'family unit' that is rather estranged. They seem to only consider each other brother and sister if they have a common father and if they are brought up as brother and sister. You only find this out if you track who calls who brother or sister. For example Aphrodite calls Hercules and Ares her brother, but not Haephestus.
Brought Down to Normal: In "The Enforcer," Hera takes away Nemesis' godhood for refusing to blindly follow orders and kill Hercules.
In "When A Man Loves A Woman," Hercules willingly surrenders his powers in order to marry Serena (who also gave up her powers to do the same).
But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Subverted in that Hera is well-aware that she murdered Hercules' family; it's just one action among many and she just doesn't see it as a big deal anyway.
Hera: I wanted Zeus to understand what he had done to me. The world was incidental.
Chekhov's Gun: a magical candle which takes Hercules back to his babyhood in "Hercules and the Amazon Women" is the gun that Herc gets Zeus to use for a Reset Button at the end of the film.
Chivalrous Pervert: Iolaus. He was shown to get involved with a number of women - so much so that "The Cave Of Echoes" had a montage about it. Still, true to the trope, he showed the upmost respect to each one.
Hercules And The Maze Of The Minotaur: The fifth TV-Movie featured a number of clips of the preceding four.
"The Cave Of Echoes": Hercules, Iolaus and a one-shot character enter a cave to rescue a Damsel in Distress, recapping old adventures. Notable in that clips from the TV-Movies (which aren't regularly re-broadcast) were also reused.
"Les Contemptibles": Set in revolutionary France, a pair of con men (played by Sorbo and Hurst) are educated about the heroes of Greece by a pair of seeming aristocrats. This and succeeding clip shows would see the regular and recurring actors playing different characters.
"Yes, Virginia, There Is A Hercules": One of the most clever uses of this trope ever. All of the supporting actors play a part in the modern day as actual members of the production staff, panicking over Kevin Sorbo going missing. They desperately try to figure out how to carry on without Sorbo, including Spinoff Babies and an animated feature. Pretty much epitomizes the humor of this show. Bruce Campbell as Robert Tapert, etc.
"For Those Of You Just Joining Us": A sequel episode of sorts, as the Ren Pics staff go on a corporate retreat to come up with ideas for the fifth season (recapping every important development up to that point).
Composite Character: Hercules first wife Deianeira on the show is actually closer to Heracles wife Megara from the myth. Although Heracles did marry a Deianeira she was his third wife and she wasn't killed by Hera directly or indirectly.
Continuity Snarl: Jason and Corinth. In "Once A Hero," it was made explicitly clear that he was much older than Hercules. His next appearance "The Wedding Of Alcmene" indicated he was a contemporary of Hercules' mortal stepfather, who died before Herc was born. If you saw Young Hercules, you can imagine the awakward retconning performed to make Jason Herc's peer. Additionally, in his first appearance, Jason was king of Argos (as in the myth), but his second appearance changed it to Corinth. This was particularly bad, as that same season had already given us "Highway to Hades" (where Sisyphus was king of Corinth). The snarl becomes real evident because the Sisyphus storyline is a follow-up to the Xena: Warrior Princess episode "Death in Chains." The Jason retcon also subsequently affected Xena, such as the previously mentioned Battle of Corinth. Apparently, despite Herc and Iolaus never having heard of Xena before Season 1, she attacked their best friend's kingdom (a place that was even retconned into being their hometown, so to speak).
Also the entire plot of Serena. Only in that episode is it shown that Hercules frequently visits his family with extreme ease and that not only do they know that they are dead (something they previously didn't), but that they are cognizant of his visits (while before it was a one-time-thing to visit his family, and Hercules told Hades to wipe their memories of his visit so they didn't have to 'live' with his pain of separation). There's also the fact that despite other Temporary Love Interests being fine because Hercules knew that he had to go on with his life and love again but that he made a promise to Deinara to be with her again once he dies, now he goes to the other side to basically tell his wife that he wants to spend eternity with someone else that he's known for 1 episode rather than his wife and children. Obviously there was significant backlash to this, because it was retconned pretty quickly so that Hercules entire relationship with Serena never happened.
Every time someone is landed with a horrible and unfair punishment that Hercules would have to rage against the Gods in order to change, they turn out to be evil anyway so he doesn't have to do a thing. Unfortunately this dilutes the entire ethos of the show that is stated in the narration.
Covered in Mud: Iolaus does this twice - first in "Pride Comes Before A Brawl" and then in "Cast A Giant Shadow." In both examples, he's running from mooks, so he hides himself by covering himself in mud and lying in a mud puddle because "it's an old hunter's trick." (He actually stays covered in mud for a few scenes afterwards in the second example.) In the first example, he's also doing it with a girl he is rescuing.
Crossover Cosmology: Herc spends a season hanging out with the Celtic and Norse gods, and later fights the Babylonian ones. He even fights Michael and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse...for some apparent reason, since they had to find even tougher Gods for him to fight.
And then they had the episode where they walked through Bethlehem and saw Christ and his family in the stable.
Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Autolycus may be comical, but he earned the right to be called "the King of Thieves." Heck, he once stole items from two different gods... in the same day.
Dark and Troubled Past: Iolaus used be to a thief prone to getting into trouble. He credits his friendship with Hercules for turning his life around.
Dark Is Not Evil: Hades rules the Underworld and usually dresses in all-black. Though understandably feared by mortals, he's actually a pretty nice guy in general.
Echidna also counts. She's the mother of monsters, but she's not really evil. She only tries to kill Hercules because Herc killed her children. After Hercules reunites her with her husband she becomes a lot nicer.
They sorted out that if you are in the weird alternate dimension - the "space between worlds" - you are suspended from time and space, and hence the rules of normal universes don't apply. Hence, when Hercules is forced into one of these alternate dimensions with the Sovereign, and he is wiped from existence due to an alternate timeline, he survives, but if he went back into one of the universes while that alternate timeline was in place, he would cease to exist (he had to wait for the original timeline to be restored before he could go back). Likewise, when Iolaus's double stumbles into an alternate dimension through a weird portal, and is there while the original Iolaus is killed, he doesn't experience the killing blow, and hence he is okay.
Defeating the Undefeatable: None of the Olympians are allowed to directly kill Hercules, but this only mostly applies to Ares since he's more likely to physically fight him instead of direct someone else to. He's the god of war, immortal and really hates his brother, but dreads the punishment for violating the "no kill" rule, so he pulls his punches. "Stranger In A Strange World" and Xena's "God Fearing Child" show exactly how dangerous Ares could be to Hercules if he wasn't willing to play by the rules.
Demonization: In Season 5, Dahak (pretending to be Iolaus) claims to the people of Greece that Hercules has gone insane and vowed to kill the Olympians, thus causing them to flee. By the time Hercules makes it back to Greece, most everyone (including Jason) believes the lies.
Iolaus does this to Ares in "Porkules." Ares spends the entirety of "One Fowl Day" making him (and by extension, Autolycus) pay for it.
Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Every time Hercules faces one of the gods, he wins. It's a subversion with the Olympians, who have been forbidden from killing him directly. (The rare times where they do choose to violate the rule, Hercules only manages to survive via good fortune and not just his strength.) Played straight, however, when he faces gods from other lands that aren't bound by said rule.
Disappeared Dad: One of Hercules' complaints about Zeus is that he took no visible role in his life. From "Regrets... I've Had A Few":
"Look, I appreciate that the other gods realize I exist, but it'd be nice to know that my own father does... even if he does think of me more than I know."
Iolaus' father abandoned his family and later died in war.
Enemy Mine: Hercules and Iolaus team-up with Ares in "Revelations."
Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Ares generally uses "loved ones" for his own goals, but he demonstrates some genuine fondness for family, such as Aphrodite. In "Two Men And A Baby," after Discord threatens to drown little Evander (Nemesis' son with Ares) out of jealousy, the god of war has a genuine Papa Wolf reaction. ("He's my son. You don't wanna try me.")
Echidna, the Mother of All Monsters. Before her Heel-Face Turn, she was very unapologetic about her actions or those of her children. However, she dearly loved said children and her husband.
Even Evil Has Standards: In "The Gauntlet," Xena is against killing women and children. She even saves one baby that survived a slaughter her army carried out while she was away.
Everybody Hates Hades: Thankfully averted. Although Hades is completely overworked and under-appreciated.
Fantastic Racism: Hera and Ares have referred to Hercules as either a "half-mortal mongrel" or "half-breed." Also, Centaurs are regularly depicted as an oft-mistreated minority.
Monsters, likewise are frequently the children of Typhon and Echidna, who don't necessarily go out of their way to eat anyone not dumb enough to wander into their open maw. Dragons, while not the babies of Titans, are likewise immediately feared and loathed despite being more apathetic than antagonistic toward humans by default (unless humans hunt their parents.)
Faux Affably Evil: Dahak. He presents himself as a pleasant being that wants "to bring freedom to the world." Of course, among his deeds are: using Iolaus' good intentions against him, temporarily driving Nebula insane, slaughtering the Druids and nonchalantly killing anyone in his way.
Flanderization: For "Yes, Virginia, There Is A Hercules," real-life quirks of the production team (such as Rob Tapert enjoying to fish) were incorporated into their fictional counter-parts and purposefully taken to extremes for laughs.
Forgotten Phlebotinum: In "Rebel With a Cause," Antigone and Hercules sneak Oedipus out of Thebes in some underground tunnels that Antigone used to escape through as a child. Later, when Antigone attempts to sneak back into Thebes undetected, she tries to do so through the front gate. Naturally, King Creon catches her.
Fourth Date Marriage: Hercule's second wife Serena. He meets her in one episode and they share a kiss at the end of the episode, he's ready to marry her by the very next episode (mere days at best in universe) and they do at the end of the episode.She dies next episode
Freudian Excuse: In Other World, the Sovereign was abandoned by his mother, Zeus went insane when he was a child and Cheiron instructed him to be a tyrant. It's also implied that losing his family prompted a Despair Event Horizon.
Genius Bruiser: While not the smartest people to walk the Earth, Herc and Iolaus tend to win not just by hitting people, but by outwitting them.
Genre Savvy: Strife of all people in "Armageddon Now, Part 1." He is dead set against trusting Callisto and tries to warn Ares, but is brushed off. (Ares doesn't trust her either, really, but he's foolishly overconfident that he can handle her.)
Giant Spider: Arachne in "Web of Desire." Her upperbody remains human (if slightly monstrous), but her lower half...
Girl of the Week: Almost every woman Iolaus meets falls for him in one way or another.
Heel-Face Turn: Xena, when she got her own series. Also, Hera, the former Big Bad, turned good in the last season just in time for Zeus to turn bad on Xena.
In Zeus's case, he had always been selfish. Hera finally allowed the mother aspect of her divine role to gain supremacy, and like the best of mothers, she will defy her husband, who considers his own survival to be of primary importance, and die for the sake of her children.
Zeus's Face-Heel Turn happened in the Twilight Of the Gods arc, though, where every single god turned evil, for no explainable reason other than that the writers wanted to get rid of the entire Olympian mythology in order to push a Judeo-Christian one. Hence Zeus' actions and motivations should be taken with this in consideration, considering how all prior characterizations of the Olympian Gods in both Hercules and Xena were ignored in the Canon Discontinuity of this arc.
Hero of Another Story: In some of Iolaus' focus episodes, Hercules is either shown or implied to be busy performing heroic deeds elsewhere.
Heroes Fight Barehanded: Very evident in the fight scenes, where most fight descent into brawls and people being tossed around- swords might be held and clashed against each other, but punches and kicks are still the the effective takedown method utilized by our heroes.
Heroic BSOD: Hercules suffers this several times following the deaths of his family, Serena and Iolaus. Iolaus' death in Season 5 proves to be the gravest, as it takes Hercules a couple episodes to recover from the loss.
Iolaus, meanwhile, goes through this in "Hero's Heart" after failing to save a woman from falling to her death.
Salmoneus experiences this in "Unchained Heart," when he freezes up during a crisis.
Heroic Self-Deprecation: poor Haephastus. Your typical angsty ridiculously talented artist who sees both himself and his creations as worthless. He's been so broken down and convinced that he's horrifically ugly (he has a burn on one side of his face) and untalented by not only the other gods (his small deformity was mocked mercilessly and he was thrown out of Olympus for it by Hera), but also his generations of human advisors who manipulated him to their own ends. He's a really very sweet, nice guy who wouldn't hurt anyone but in an early season 3 episode it's obvious that his advisor lies to him to get him to do what he wantsnoe and his father was in the same position much earlier when Haephestus banished a small town for 50 years, and considering that when Iago lies to Haephestus and says that all the villagers hate him, called him names and committed sacrilege against him, Haephestus agrees that he's worthy of mockery and basically just feels terrible and does nothing, being very reluctant to do anything forceful, the amount of manipulation required to get him to take an entire town out of time for 50 years must have been insane!. He dismisses all compliments from Aphrodite, and she has to give a very prolonged You Are Better Than You Think You Are speech in order to get him to think better of himself.
Heterosexual Life-Partners: Hercules and Iolaus. How much of the "heterosexual" actually applies will depend on the individual's interpretation of their close, loving relationship where each means more to the other than any family or romantic relationship ever. Xena and Gabrielle could probably relate.
Hidden Depths: Salmoneus often displays a cowardly streak (justified in that he doesn't know how to fight) and is quite greedy, but that doesn't stop him from stepping up when needed. In his second appearance, he helps a blinded Hercules against three Centaurs.
Hercules views Autolycus as an egotistical thief when they first meet, but then he learns about his past. Turns out his older brother was cheated out of his land and then murdered. When the authorities did nothing, Autolycus robbed the murderer blind and gave every spoil to the poor.
Contrary to her valley girl-like persona, Aphrodite is rather smart, falls for a god that considers himself ugly and cares more for mortals even more than Herc thinks.
Hilarious Outtakes: There is a famous one where Kevin runs onto the set of Xena and says "Woops, wrong show" before running off.
Hobbes Was Right: Callisto claims in "Surprise" that all mortals are wicked and should be punished. Though Hercules doesn't outright invoke Rousseau Was Right, he says he's seen too much good in the world for that to be true.
Hollywood Exorcism: In "Redemption," the plan is to perform an exorcism to drive Dahak out of Iolaus. However, before it can truly begin, Dahak kills Zarathrustra (the only one who knew how to perform the ritual). Hercules resorts to simply trying to reach Iolaus.
I Am Spartacus: In one episode Herc was put to a trial for being essentially a vigilante, inspiring other people to try and repeat his feats to disastrous results and some other bullshit like that (it was all set up by Ares). In the end first the judge and then other participants indicate that they share Herc's views and are ready to share his responcibility buy saying "I'm Hercules as well".
I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: After his second wife Serena is murdered, Herc eventually goes back in time and manages to save her life but at the cost that she no longer remembers him and their time together technically never happened.
Insult Backfire: After clobbering Ares for the umpteenth time, Hercules calls him a masochist. Ares doesn't know what the word means, but he does "like the sound of that."
Interspecies Romance: Hercules with Serena, the Golden Hind. He actually falls in love with her human form, and she gives up her Golden Hind side while he gives up his strength so that they can be together, but still.
Invincible Hero: 100 ft tall monster? Piece of cake. Immortal God? No sweat. The monsters might be okay, but how a mortal half god can kick the hell out of an immortal full god not just once but on a regular basis is a mystery to me.
Not just any god, but the god of freakinwar!
Though, in the actual mythology, Zeus's children by his actual wife tended to be the least impressive. Ares in particular loved fighting on whatever side was already winning, and would run back to Olympus as soon as he was wounded, despite being immortal.
They actually covered that, Zeus had told the other Gods not to kill Hercules, so every time they fought Ares was forced to pull his punches.
It doesn't work quite that way. While Hercules got his mother's mortality and lack of godlike powers, his strength is all from Zeus's side. He can physically fight Ares as an equal, but can't match him metaphysically. However, in fights on Xena, its been shown that Ares is rather brilliant at using his powers to his advantage (ignoring the Canon Discontinuity in season 5)
Eventually, Hercules upgrades to fighting Archangels, Archdemons, and the head gods Zeus and Hera themselves. Not won easily, mind you...technically, he lost the physical fight but won the metaphysical fight instead.
Also, while never actually put to the test or confronted directly, it is hinted more than once that Hercules is actually immortal.
Hercules has longevity, which means that he doesn't age or die naturally, but he can be killed - although he doesn't seem to injure easily.
It should be noted that in actual mythology, Hercules was not only capable of beating Ares in a straight fight, But was powerful enough to fight Apollo on equal terms, to the point that Zeus had to break up their fight with a lightning bolt. He also gained a favor from Helius, the Sun God, with nothing more than a Death Glare. Remember, in mythology Hercules, unlike his fellow demigods, was actually more god than man—he was intentionally sired by Zeus to be a god who would live as a mortal, so that when he died he would rise to Olympus, so the gods would have someone with experience to give them advice on how to deal with mortals.
He was also canonically lovers with Iolas, so YMMV on how much myth was ignored... or not.
It's a Wonderful Plot: Subverted with the "Armageddon Now" two-parter. Hercules isn't in distress about his life, but thanks to a time traveling Callisto, he and Iolaus witness what the world would be like without him - Xena never experiencing a Heel-Face Turn and ruling all of Greece with an iron fist.
Hercules: That's between you and Zeus. Hera: No, you're what's between us. But if you die a horrible death, maybe he'll think twice next time his eyes start to wander - before he fathers any more half-mortal mongrels like you.
The Sovereign has it out for Hercules due to his trapping him in Netherworld, but it escalates when a bout of Fridge Brilliance hits him.
Sovereign: You must've had a family just like I did. Hercules: I did. Hera killed them. Sovereign: So she kills your family for something you did and when yours died, mine did, t—! Hercules: I'm sorry that happened. I'm sure you loved your family very much. Sovereign: You're to blame for everything that's happened to me. You can forget about getting out of here. You're mine.
Jerkass Gods: The show got that part of the mythology right, anyway.
Kansas City Shuffle: In the Season Two premiere episode, The King of Thieves, Hercules is chasing a thief who uses a grappling hook. While the two are in a castle, the thief dangles the grappling hook out of a window and hides in the rafters. Hercules isn't fooled.
Lampshade Hanging: In "Not Fade Away," Hades tells Hercules he has until sunset to save Iolaus because those are the rules.
Hercules: Who makes these rules?
Lighter and Softer: Compared to the original myth, Hercules is a Boy Scout and more in line with our traditional views of a hero as opposed to the he-man who wasn't above rape and murder and had a short temper, Hera kills his family directly instead of driving Hercules insane and having him do it
Literary Agent Hypothesis: "Yes Virginia, There is a Hercules" claims that Kevin Sorbo is the real Hercules, subtly influencing his real adventures into the show.
Loophole Abuse: Zeus' protection only specifies that the Olympians themselves aren't allowed to kill Hercules. Hera and the like typically send everything from mooks to monsters after him instead. Ares Lampshades this in "Two Men And A Baby."
Manly Tears: To be shed whenever someone dies, isn't dead anymore, or when your best friend tells you you're his family.
Mercy Kill: In "Web Of Desire," Archne's Super Spit causes one of Hercules' shipmates to slowly melt away. As the man begs for something to relieve the pain, Nebula stabs him in the chest—saying she's already seen the end result before the others arrived.
Subverted in "Redemption," when Zarathrustra's immortality is removed following an attack by Dahak during the exorcism. Hercules thinks it's proof Iolaus' true self is emerging. Dahak then reminds him that only Zarathrustra knew how to perform the exorcism.
Meta Casting: Atalanta (one of the few Action Girls in Greek Mythology) was played by well-known female body-builder Cory Everson, who probably could beat Kevin Sorbo in arm wrestling.
Missing Mom: This happens to Hercules in the fourth season. Meanwhile, the Sovereign said his mother abandoned him, which explains a lot.
Iolaus is an inverse of this trope. His mother is very much alive, but he left her and stayed away out of shame for the way he behaved while living with her.
Mood Whiplash: there's a lot of this. The episodes in seasons 1-4 constantly swing between campy and ridiculous with flimsy pretext and the occasional Broken Aesop, and dark serious episodes with genuine introspection and deconstruction of moral conflict. It really hurts your neck, and feels like two sets of completely different writers are working on the show.
Moral Dissonance: may count as an Out-of-Character Moment. When Hercules falls in love with Serena, everything seems well and good... until you find out that he can visit his dead wife and kids any time he likes and when he decides to marry Serena after knowing her for barely one episode, he goes to see his wife to explain that he's fallen in love with someone else, for all intents and purposes leaving her and the kids and having not a single qualm of conscience over the fact that he is breaking the heart of his dead wife who is stuck in the afterlife because of him (we know that people can move into Eternity or get reincarnated from certain aspects of their afterlives from both this series and Xena with the implication that something is required to keep people from moving along, and this does include people who have gone to the Elesian Fields, as we find out).note If it was even difficult to visit his family, this might be different but all he has to shout is "Hades" and he gets a free trip across without having to even travel through the Underworld, with his family not being surprised at all to see him with added evidence that he does see them often, and his wife being so utterly devastated by his confession that it brings to light the fact that their relationship has really been relegated to a long-distance one (Hades giving Herc a free pass to the Underworld due to his help with Persephone), and that Hercules has basically committed adultery. That Hercules milks the fact that his family died in future episodes for sympathy makes things seem rather hypocritical. So much for loving Deinaira "beyond measure."
Herc will not kill anyone, however he will also condemn anyone who chooses to kill (except in battle). E.g. in one episode, the sole sheriff of a town is about to die (he has one day left). His town is over-run with gangs of cold-blooded killers and thugs (guys who kill and torture defenseless men, women and children indiscriminately and loudly boast about past crimes and plan new murders in public) who he takes to court, but everyone is too scared to testify or to convict them (when they should have been hung long ago). This man is the only one who who stands up to these thugs, and he has a new-born son with no relatives that he knows he won't be there to protect him. So he goes out and kills these men so they can't kill anyone else. Despite the fact that if justice would have had its way, these men would have been dead by hanging long ago - and this sheriff was the one who took all these men to court in order to be punished by hanging - Hercules calls his act "evil" and Celestia - the messenger of Death - agrees with him. This isn't "these people did not have a fair trial to decide their innocence", these men were clearly guilty and would have been convicted for any one of their numerous crimes, and the sheriff is now 'doing evil acts that must be stopped' (as Hercules says).
In fairness, Hercules moralizes loudly while the sheriff is going after actual murderers and rapists, but doesn't actually try to _stop_ the guy until it's turned into a full-on rampage and he's about to start executing teenagers for being insubordinate and engaging in petty crime.
Herc goes to ridiculous lengths to Save the Villain, in many episodes. However, for people like Xena and Dirce, he lets them go, despite their manifold crimes, as long as they promise to stop, while for many people who have done much lesser crimes, he forces them to "face justice" even though they have accepted the error of their ways and want to atone. Basically it works like this: killed manifold people in cold blood, conquered entire countries, oppressed people's way of life and sold people into slavery = freedom; performed many robberies, became part of a gang with a bad reputation, killed a couple of people in cold blood = death by hanging (according to justice). And the times that Hercules thinks that the court is unfair, he will free people or stop the court from performing punishments (despite the fact that the point of justice by court is that a magistrate or group of people decide according to their interpretation of the law and the crime). So it boils down to: Hercules decides someone's fate (including delivering them to a court knowing they will be killed), and then allows the court to kill the people that deserve it rather than by his own hand, because he doesn't believe in killing. Does anyone else see a problem here?
Possibly Intentional Values Dissonance — in the bronze age, killing your neighbor or stealing his cow was a terrible crime, but getting twenty of your buddies together and conquering the next town to kill them and take their cows was politics as usual.
Actually lampshaded in an episode where he lands in 'enlightened' (read: anachronistically liberal and modern) Athens and is immediately put on trial for, essentially, being a vigilante rather than following the law. He's called out very specifically on giving Xena and another former assassin/mercenary a free pass while killing others that did far less.
"We've had our differences, but it's because you refuse to look past what you think you see in me. We want the same thing for this world. ... Order. Perfect order. It can be a place without crime, without vice. Think how happy that'd make your beloved mortals. And wouldn't it set Zeus back a step? You and me? Think about it."
Inverted with Gilgamesh. Both he and Hercules are half-god heroes that lost their families to pointless violence and were effectively betrayed by their godly fathers. However, these comparisons are made before Gilgamesh is revealed to be a servant of Dahak.
Not-So-Harmless Villain: Strife. Now, there is no doubt that he was extremely goofy and often harmless, but there where moments where he was actually a genuine threat, even bordering on Magnificent Bastard to the point that he even impressed Ares from time to time. In fact, he would be a much bigger threat if not for Hercules, something that tends to be forgotten thanks to his over the top silliness. In the series Young Hercules this is expanded even further, actually making a much bigger threat and more than capable of going head to head with Hercules and playing him like harp. Let's not forget this guy was The Dragon for Ares.
Iolaus, who despite not having Hercules strength or god-like legacy, still faces the same threats as Hercules knowing that he is the one who will probably end up being killed (and still being okay with dying for Hercules), and who is barely known or applauded as the hero he is. Lampshaded constantly.
Hades. Poor guy is constantly overworked, and is really pissed off that Ares gets a larger staff than him while making the wars that cause back-ups across the River Styx. Charon isn't really pleased when he gets overlooked either, but at least he doesn't have to deal with the statistical nightmare of co-ordinating and judging the dead while the Olympian Gods and Hercules run around screwing things over whenever it suits them.
Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Actor Michael Hurst (Iolaus) was supposed to sound ambiguous (read: American), but his native Kiwi accent slipped in every now and then, especially in the beginning.
Odd Friendship: Iolaus and Aphrodite. Unsurprisingly, Iolaus 2 develops one with her as well.
Oh Crap: In "Darkness Rising," Hercules listens to Nebula's story, where she thinks she's been hallucinating Iolaus and is going crazy. Hercules thinks he knows what's going on and starts to look distressed. When he checks out Iolaus' coffin, he finds it empty and then finds someone standing right behind him.
Our Vampires Are Different: In "Darkness Visible," Hercules and Iolaus face vampires led by Vlad. Typically, the vampires have no reflections and drink blood (being able to turn a mortal or just feed). They also possess healing abilities. Note that these are explicitly referred to as vampires (or Strigoi) - not Bacchae, who appeared on Xena: Warrior Princess and Young Hercules.
Overshadowed by Awesome: Iolaus is skilled, resourceful, and a kickass fighter. He is not, however, a superstrong demigod, so he sometimes winds up as this. Sometimes he is angry about it ("Pride Comes Before A Brawl" and "The Warrior Princess"), or introspective ("A Star To Guide Them"), or very aware of it ("Medea Culpa"), or it is used to mess with his head ("Redemption").
Iphicles might have it even worse, where he has to live in the shadow of his little brother. It's a major plotpoint in "What's In A Name?"
It doesn't help that in the source material, this is canon.
Psycho for Hire: Most of the gods' executioners are basically monsters who just want to kill humans for fun. A noteworthy example is Pyro the fire demon, who was tasked by Hera with killing Hercules' family. We later see him in action when he's tasked with killing Salmoneus for unwittingly looting Hera's treasure hoard. Despite being on an important mission he's clearly more interested in just burning things, particularly Hercules. He even burns one of his own comrades to death just for being there.
Pyrrhic Victory: In the flashbacks to "Twilight," young Hercules manages to end a bloody war, but not before watching an old friend die.
Alcmene: For every boy that's not coming home, one hundred more will and that's because of you. Hercules: Then why do I feel like I failed?
Reality Subtext/Written-In Infirmity: "Yes, Virginia, There Is A Hercules", a clip show in which the staff of HTLJ try to work out what to do after Kevin Sorbo goes missing, was written when Sorbo fell seriously ill and couldn't film.
Reset Button: Herc gets his father Zeus to do this towards the end of the first Made For TV Movie, "Hercules and the Amazon Women," undoing the deaths of the Amazon queen (who he had fallen in love with but post-reset he never meets), a villager Herc likes, and Iolaus. Herc remembers what happened pre-reset, but no other non-god does. Zeus refuses to do it at first, saying that the other gods get ticked off.
Following "The End Of The Beginning," only Hercules and Autolycus remember what really happened to Serena. "My Best Girl's Wedding" would later suggest that not even the gods really remember the original history. (Aphrodite sees Serena and finds her familiar, but needs Herc to explain why.) Serena only remembers following spending a prolonged amount of time with the big guy.
Roaring Rampage of Revenge: In the first episode, after Hera kills his family, Hercules proceeds to destroy all of her temples in the area. It takes Iolaus falling victim to the She-Demon to cause him to shake the vengeful streak.
Running Gag: During 'Prince Hercules', Iolaus is dunked into a grape wine vat, turning purple for the remainder of the episode, prompting everybody who runs across him to ask 'Why are you purple?' The villains of the week even start calling him 'Purple Man.'
Sadistic Choice: In "Stranger In A Strange World," after switching places with his double, Iolaus finds himself as the assassin in a resistance plot to kill the Sovereign. Killing the Sovereign would mean stopping a brutal tyrant with a Omnicidal Maniac-type plan, but it would also mean Hercules' death, too. Iolaus actually does try to go through with the assassination, but the Sovereign knew about the plot all along and effortlessly stopped him.
Sadly Mythtaken: Obviously. Numerous members of production have commented that they were well-aware an established myth was being twisted, but did so anyway in the interests of the story.
Sex Slave: When Hercules wants to infiltrate a Kingdom that engages in gladiatorial games (to the death) in "Gladiator", he allows himself to be captured and sentenced to slavery. The Queen of this Kingdom is intent on making Hercules one of these, after having her servants rip his shirt off to inspect his muscles.
Shirtless Scene : Kevin Sorbo said in interviews and on the DVD commentary that the producers wanted the shirt off in every episode, but he did not. He said there were more shirtless scenes in the first season than in the rest. See particularly, "Gladiator," the TV movies "Hercules and the Amazon Women," and "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom."
Shout Out: Unsurprisingly, Evil Dead got quite a few: 1) the Mr. Goody Two-Shoes routine in "The End of the Beginning"; 2) "Gimme some sugar, baby" in "Men in Pink"; 3) Klaatu Verada Nikto being a passage in the Egyptian Necronomicon in "City of the Dead". Parts of Joe Lo Duca's score for ''Army of Darkness' were also re-used in a few episodes.
The two enforcers made by Hera are clearly shoutouts to the Terminator franchise.
Shown Their Work: For all the griping about the series not following established myths, the writers clearly knew what they were considering the many references to people, locations and events in various episodes.
Shrouded in Myth: In "Doomsday," a scribe tracks Hercules down and asks him about past heroics, thinking the myth outweighs the man. Hercules believes that's always a possibility, but it doesn't play out that way with the provided examples.
Hercules: People do tend to exaggerate. Katrina: Yeah, like the tail of you killing a giant sea-monster with your bare hands? That’s a little hard to swallow. Hercules: Well, actually, that one’s true, and it was pretty easy for him to swallow me. Katrina: Okay, but that yarn about the two-headed Hydra? I mean, come on. Hercules: That one they got wrong. Katrina: There you go. Hercules: It had three heads.
Smug Super: Hercules can come off as that at his bad days.
Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome: Evander was born early into Season 4, but was already about grammar school age two years later in Season 6. Possibly jusitified by his father being the god of war and his mother being a former goddess.
Something Completely Different: Several episodes, including "For Those Of You Just Joining Us" which takes place in modern times, and "Les Contemptibles" which takes place in revolution-era France.
Story Arc: The series was largely episodic, but there were Callbacks and follow-up episodes to build on previous events. ("The End of the Beginning", for example, to the Golden Hind trilogy.) However, Season 5 was a highly serialized one - the first half featuring the Dahak storyline, the second half depicting Iolaus 2's teaming-up with Hercules and some stand-alone episodes for good measure.
Anything worn by most female characters. Low cut top, short skirt, and (usually) bare midriff were standards for them.
Superman Stays Out of Gotham: In Iolaus' focus episodes or the Autolycus/Salmoneus episodes, Hercules either has very little screentime or outright doesn't appear.
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Nebula 2/The Empress for Xena 2 in "Stranger And Stranger." The original intention was for Lucy Lawless to appear in the episode, but when that fell through, she was replaced by Gina Torres. Word Of God states that the script was not changed to reflect this, however, barring any name changes of course.
Iolaus 2 is an inversion, being a different character but played by the same actor.
Swallowed Whole: A sea monster does this to Hercules and Deianeira in Hercules and the Lost Kingdom.
Take That, Us: Oh, so much of it in "Yes, Virginia, There Is A Hercules" and "For Those Of You Just Joining Us."
Temporary Blindness: Hercules in "As Darkness Falls" via a drug in his drink. Rather than wait to see if it will wear off, he chooses to (with some help) go after the Centaurs responsible and rescue their captives.
The Artifact- This part of the opening narration: "He journeyed the earth battling the minions of his wicked stepmother Hera the all powerful Queen of the Gods" while this is true in the Action Pack movies and the first two seasons to an extent, Ares takes over the rule of Big Bad midway through season 3, Hera appears in the season 4 finale but gets sealed off with Dahak becoming the new Big Bad in season 5 yet the narration always stays the same.
The Time of Myths: Parodied in season 1 episode 2. This was so long ago that togas were new at the time.
Throw It In: During script readings, the writers and producers were very open to suggestions from Kevin Sorbo, Michael Hurst and main guest actors. This extended to during filming, such as the "Doe, a deer, a female deer" exchange in "Encounter."
Watch Where You're Going!: Used in the Animated adaptation, and may have been employed in the regular series as well. Tricking two Mooks into knocking each-other out was a good time saver.
We Will Meet Again: Ares does this often—either saying essentially that or making a comment about his list. He does it so often that Herc and Iolaus mock him for it in the last episode.
"Well Done, Son" Guy: This is more true in Young Hercules, but the flashback episodes show a young hero who wants nothing more than to meet his father and be acknowledged.
Wham Episode: "Faith." Greece is left behind (and will be for about half a season), Iolaus dies (again... for a while), a devastated Hercules has to work through his grief, Nebula becomes a queen and the Dahak storyline officially begins on this series.
What Happened to the Mouse?: Salmoneus was a fairly prominent recurring character early in the series' run, but made fewer appearances later on - stopping with an early Season 5 episode. This was Lampshaded in a Season 6 episode:
Iolaus: Hey, Herc, you'd hear what happened to Salmoneus?
Hercules: Yeah, he got sent to prison for tax fraud.
Jason also stops making appearances by the end of Season 5. His last episode ("The Academy") arguably gives him something of a send-off (a rekindled romance with Lilith, a daughter in Seska and taking over as headmaster of Cheiron's academy). However, "A Wicked Good Time" features Seska going through a rough time and absolutely no mention is made of Jason.
Who Wants to Live Forever?: When Zarathrustra turned against Dahak, his family was murdered and he was cursed with immortality to keep him separated from them.
Whole Episode Flashback: The four Young Hercules episodes ("Regrets... I've Had A Few", "Medea Culpa", "Twilight" and "Top God") and "Just Passing Through".
William Telling: In "Reign of Terror" King Augeus gains Zeus' powers and forces a man to stand with an apple on his head while he takes shots at the apple with lightning bolts. He misses wildly. Aphrodite saves the man by distracting Augeus, just as the last bolt passes between the man's legs.
Worf Had The Flu: In one episode Hercules is injured in a shipwreck and had to face against a dangerous escaped prisoner. If he was completely healthy there would be no difficulty fending him off, and the prisoner compliments Hercules on his skill even with a busted arm.
Would Hurt a Child: Callisto says as much in "Surprise," picking up on what was established over on Xena. Who she threatens, however, is what really boils Herc's blood.
"If I go back to the Underworld, I won't be suffering alone. I'll find your children. Aeson, Klonus and little Ilia, is it? And I'll dedicate eternity to making them suffer. After all, I got here, didn't I? I can get to them."
Written-In Infirmity: Early into the fourth season, Kevin Sorbo suffered some health issues. To accommodate him, the writers put more focus on Iolaus, produced "Men In Pink" (an Autolycus/Salmoneus episode), utilized Autolycus more and produced three additional Young Hercules episodes. Sorbo actually appeared in all but "Men In Pink" during this period, but his screentime was reduced from its usual length - only increasing the more he recovered.
During a Cross Over with Xena, Michael Hurst broke his arm while filming a fight scene. Iolaus' arm was subsequently injured in "Cast A Giant Shadow" and was seen in a cast for a couple episodes.
Xanatos-Gambit: "You see, he thought he stopped Dahak from entering the world. But... all Dahak needed was a warrior heart. So, when little Iolaus sacrificed himself for the fair maiden Nebula, Dahak had everything he needed!"
Dahak pulls it again in the same arc by trying to get Hercules to kill him and send him back into his realm. Doing so would condemn an innocent soul (Iolaus) to the same fate, thus shattering the balance between good and evil - plunging the world into chaos and darkness. Of course, if Hercules does nothing, then Dahak "will take the world soul by soul" and win regardless.
Year Outside, Hour Inside: In "Love Takes A Holiday," Iolaus stumbles upon a village that Hephaestus cursed. The villagers think only a morning has passed, but it's actually been 50 years. It's later revealed that Iolaus' grandmother lives there and his father escaped the curse because he was playing by a nearby river.
You Look Familiar: Herc's two half-brothers Ares and Iphicles bore an awfully strong remarkable resemblance to each other, despite not sharing any blood relation. (Out of universe, both were of course played by the late Kevin Smith.)
In one episode, Aphrodite turns a pig named Catherine into a human (It Makes Sense in Context). Catherine's human form is played by Alexandra Tydings, who plays Aphrodite. The goddess of love even compliments Catherine's attractiveness.
Besides Iolaus, Michael Hurst played both Orestes and the Widow Twanky. Orestes is Iolaus' half-cousin and the two looking alike is a plot point for both episodes he appears in. Instances of something "familiar" about the Widow Twanky, though, is played as pure Lampshade Hanging. He also played Charon, although it's harder to tell under the prosthetics.
Before playing Xena, Lucy Lawless appeared as Lyla, the human girlfriend (and then wife) of a centaur. In "Outcast" (which was produced after Xena was established), Salmoneus notes the similarity.
Lawless also played an "Amazon" in the first Legendary JourneysMade-for-TV Movie. These are different Amazons than the ones which come up later in the Herc/Xena verse. She has sex with Zeus (not knowing he's a god).
Lisa Chappell played three different characters over the course of the series—Lydia, Dirce, and Princess Melissa—with a lampshade hanging when Dirce met Melissa in "Hercules on Trial" and commented that she was "uncommonly beautiful".
Those who only remember Renee O'Connor as Xena's sidekick Gabrielle may be surprised to see her playing a totally different role in the second Hercules movie, "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom," as a young Trojan princess who is quite smitten with our hero.
Joel Tobeck played a villain of the week in a Season 2 episode. He later returned to play Strife. After Strife was killed, he turned up as cousin Deimos. The resemblance between the two gods was Lampshaded in "Fade Out:"
Ares: They look enough alike, don't you think? Deimos: Do not. I'm taller, and he's dead.
A number of the minor villains are played by the same actors. A slaver from the season 1 episode "March To Freedom" returns as the brother of the defeated warlord Demetrius in Season 2 episode "Cast A Giant Shadow." Similar, but more apparent examples are the two centaur twin brothers who both seek to kill Hercules, one for his wife, the other to avenge his dead brother.
Also, actor Glenn Shadix played both the giant Typhon and his twin brother Typhoon.
Robert Trebor, Salmoneus, shows up in the second Made-for-TV Movie as Waylon, a slave who runs away from his mistress to become the slave of Hercules, who frees him.
Your Cheating Heart: Hercules with Serena (when you find out that he regularly gets a free pas to the other side (courtesy of Hades) to visit Deinara and the kids, and that his relationship with them was, at the time he fell in love with Serena, more of a long-distance one that actually accepting that his family is dead and moving on. Hence, when he tells Deinara that he's fallen in love with someone else and that he's getting married - after knowing her for one measly episode - she is completely and utterly devastated and has no idea how she is going to break it to the kids that their father is essentially "leaving them." The entire thing really makes Hercules morality and behaviour look incredibly self-centered and hypocritical, never more so than that he still tells other people that his family is dead and he understands what they are going through when they have lost a loved one, milking it for sympathy.
He's able to visit, but not actually be part of the afterlife without dying, and his presence literally spoils his family's paradise, to the extent that Hades has to mind-wipe them to make them happy again after each visit. There's a reason he only visits the underworld infrequently, nephew of the boss or not. This also explains why he still finds his family's death a source of frustration and pain.