Entertainment » Television

’Crusoe’ is Stranded Without Ideas

by Kilian Melloy
Sunday Oct 19, 2008

NBC's new shipwreck drama Crusoe doesn't know whether it wants to be a campy TV take on Pirates of the Caribbean or a complex, mytharcing drama like Lost, so it resorts to a mixed bag of worn-out TV cliches: there's the gizmo-loaded treetop penthouse (everything made of wood, rope, and rattan), the trained dog, the urgent (and, from the get-go, frustrated) need to get back home... oh, and an absolutely bromantic love fest between the title character, shipwreck survivor Robinson Crusoe (Philip Winchester) and his man Friday (Tongai Chirisa).

The premiere episode, a 2-hour event of mind-numbing non-originality, sees Crusoe's island visited by pirates who are hot on the trail of a legendary cache of gold. They have a map: it's scarred onto the back of an older gent who spent a decade and a half in a Spanish prison. The map's illustrator was a man who died in prison, but not before fathering a fiendishly capable (and ruthless) daughter named Judy (Georgina Rylance); the pirates are led by a flamboyant, campy captain named Lynch (Jonathan Pienaar) who not only channels a watered-down Jack Sparrow, but steals his makeup thunder with a healthy dab of eyeliner (now, that's just wrong).

All of this might actually work if there were the least attempt to find some fresh angle, but the script leaves the show floundering between a Scylla of silliness (among Crusoe's other outrageous contraptions, he rigs up a human hamster wheel to cross a piranha-filled river) and a Charybdis of willful obtuseness in the name of mystery: Crusoe's story is filled with flashbacks to his life in England, with all of its complications: his mother's mysterious death, his father (played by Sean Bean) coming to an uncertain fate, and a wealthy benefactor (Sam Neill) taking a strange interest in young Crusoe's welfare (with a hint of ambiguity cropping up as to Crusoe's actual paternity).

The production rubs the cinders of novelty long burned out into our eyes; a sword fight is dramatically back-lit as the combatants have it out in the open mouth of a cave (a few minutes later the action grinds to a halt with a pratfall into a mud puddle); hazy CGI galleons bob off the shore line; the treasure hunt leads to an inconvenient X marking a spot too close for comfort; and Friday, cheerful, endlessly loyal, unbelievably skilled, is less a character in his own right than a sidekick.

Then again, hardly anyone in this show is a character, really: they're all more like Saturday morning archetypes: the blond guy with the big, square jaw; the evil villain with a lame sense of humor; the cadre of dim-witted goons.

It's true that the show derives from a novel written in the early 17th century, but in the last ten years or so TV has moved beyond at least some of the conventions of the mid-20th century. Crusoe is, alas, a throwback: its only pleasures are fleeting and slummy.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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