By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008
When it comes to settings for high adventure or low, places where dreadful perils might lie around every corner, desert islands are a dime a dozen. Just strand people there by the carload -- an eccentric collection of kooky cruisers who'd naively booked passage for a three-hour tour (a three-hour tour!) or a tribe of British schoolboys who quickly devolve into competing clans of feral fellows -- and you've got yourself the basic ingredients of ye olde ripping yarn.
Comes now NBC with a spiffy, slicked-back, tricked-out version of the novel that introduced to the civilized world the strandee of all strandees, on the granddaddy of all desert islands: Robinson Crusoe, his name shortened to "Crusoe," and the lush-looking series of that name making its bow tonight with a hectic and handsome two-hour premiere.
Resemblances to the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe, while not enormously gratifying, are frequent enough to make this more tribute than travesty, even if it is likely to give English-lit teachers fits.
Philip Winchester -- one of those long-haired young actors who resembles any number of long-haired young actors whom you can't quite place -- picks up the arguably plum part of Crusoe where whoever last played it left off. Although NBC publicity indicates that the story will be told in a straightforward, linear way that's essentially faithful to the structure of the novel, when we meet Crusoe tonight he's already stranded, already settled into his homemade home and clearly quite comfortable in the alien surroundings. He has also befriended Friday, the genial English-speaking native.
Friday (Tongayi Chirisa) was apparently expelled from the island's resident tribe of troublemakers to which he formerly belonged, and whose other members devote themselves -- perhaps out of boredom -- to making Crusoe's life a living heck.
"Where you go, I go," Friday says in a touching expression of fidelity, but mere moments later, to assure viewers that there is nothing submissive in the man's relationship to Crusoe, Friday indignantly reminds his beachcomber pal, "I am not your slave!" Even so, it's clear who's the star of the island, and of the show, and who gets second billing; if the producers really wanted to spruce up "Crusoe" and justify retelling the tale, why not do something provocative such as reversing the racial roles, so that Crusoe is the gentleman of color and Friday the European-complected one? Alas, they weren't thinking that audaciously.
Besides, the element that most obviously inspired the producers to dig Crusoe up again was the huge global success of the Johnny Depp "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. Scarcely five minutes into tonight's show, it stops being about loneliness when the island is invaded by a gang of raggle-taggle, sloppy-boppy pirates looking for bounty, or is it booty, and brandishing gold teeth and acres of tattooing.
Good grief, another buried treasure? Yes, another buried treasure.
To relieve the claustrophobia that viewers might experience from being trapped on the island with the actors, the adventures are punctuated with flashbacks, including memories of Crusoe's ladylove back in England, which allows for a much-needed feminine presence. Sam Neill shows up in the flashbacks, too, snarling and sulking in his nasty-villain mode, apparently destined to become ever more villainous as the weeks go by in the role of Crusoe's mentor.
The premiere, unfortunately, boils down to chase after chase after chase -- Crusoe being captured by the pirates, then escaping, then being captured again, then escaping again. He also traps and clobbers pirates with his own elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions made during weeks of solitude. During one long sequence, Crusoe is marched through the jungle by the pirates, who expect to be led to the treasure. Curiously -- but really not so curiously -- Crusoe's journey is divided into sequences of shirt on, shirt off, shirt on, shirt off, giving Winchester a chance to parade his underwear model's physique and, presumably, giving the series some appeal for female viewers. Or whomever.
For all its shortcomings and flat flourishes, "Crusoe" has one very significant thing going for it, a virtue that can be summarized in four reassuring words: At Least It's Different. It bears no resemblance to the crime procedurals that glut the network schedules, and though it has similarities both to ABC's "Lost" and to the CBS reality veteran "Survivor," it's exactly like neither.
Also in the show's favor: the possibility that young viewers attracted to the series will also be attracted to the book. Not that it's a great book, of course, but these days almost any book will do. Any excuse to get kids near one is ipso facto hunky-dory.
Crusoe (two hours) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 4.