Judge Cynthia Boris wishes every day was Friday.
The MacGyver of the 17th Century
What do you do when your much-hyped TV series falls flat right out of the gate? You label it a mini-series and say you meant to do that. Presenting Crusoe: The Complete Series, all 12 episodes.
Facts of the Case
Crusoe is an adventure series based on the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel DeFoe. The book was originally published in the 1700s, and it remains one of the most popular books in history with nearly one thousand editions, translations, and inspired spin-offs. Depending how liberal you want to be, you can go from Robinson Crusoe to Swiss Family Robinson to the space family Robinson, aka, Irwin Allen's Lost in Space, to Gilligan's Island for that matter.
In the case of NBC's, Crusoe, no such stretch is needed as the series stays fairly true to the original work. When we first drop in, Robinson Crusoe (Philip Winchester, Flyboys) has been stranded on that desert island for six years. In that time, he's developed a few engineering marvels that allow him to live rather comfortably in this tropical paradise, but what he hasn't been able to build for himself is a friend. Enter his man Friday (Tongai Arnold Chirisa), whom Crusoe saves from becoming a cannibal's dinner. From that moment on, Crusoe and Friday become the Batman and Robin of the island fighting off pirates, searching for treasure and defending themselves from that ill-tempered woman we call Mother Nature.
How Crusoe came to be shipwrecked is told in a series of flashbacks involving his wife Susannah Crusoe (Anna Walton, Hellboy II: The Golden Army), and the shifty Jeremiah Blackthorn (Sam Neill, The Tudors) a family friend who may just be up to no good.
There were two things that attracted me to Crusoe in the first place. One was the swashbuckling nature of the show. I'm a big fan of the Pirates movies, and adventures like Indiana Jones so it was right up my alley. Second, I love buddy shows—be they brothers or just truly bonded partners—and I saw the potential in Crusoe and Friday.
When I sat down to watch the first episode, I was taken in by the visual splendor. The wide-screen HD presentation, which holds up nicely on this DVD, was breathtaking. Gorgeous sweeping shots of the ocean, long treks through tropical forest, even the historical scenes back in London were more theatrical than you usually see on TV.
The production designer also gets kudos for the clever Crusoe gadgets that are scattered throughout the episodes. Squeeze fresh juice from four oranges at a time with a handy coconut and bamboo squeezer. Done with all of the rinds? Send them for a ride in the garbage cart that carries the rubbish away from the tree house and automatically dumps it to the jungle floor below. Crusoe's tree house also has an elevator and a series of trapdoors that fold upward to prevent unwanted intruders from climbing in. It's safety first, on this island, so be careful of the numerous tripwires and traps that have been set to ward off unruly natives. Yes, the gadgets are one of the best things about watching this series.
Once you get past the visuals, you're left with the characters and stories. Winchester and Chirisa are both very charismatic and they make a great team. Granted, their dialogue and actions are far from realistic but I was okay with that in the same way I accept an aging Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator. The stories, however, vary little from week to week and I'll talk more about that later on.
Rewatching the series on DVD, I began to think more and more about who was the target audience for this piece. On the surface, it would seem to be a young male demographic with the action and the pirates and abundance of hunt or be hunted scenes. But I think the real audience for this show is women over thirty because there's so much freaking love in the air.
The flashbacks to Susannah and the one episode where she appears on the island, all have a distinct romance novel feel about them. They fulfill that 'take me now and make mad passionate love to me, you rouge,' tone that is the basis of so many pirate-themed bodice rippers. There's even a cabin boy who is really a woman and a pirate captain channeling Johnny Depp.
Then there is the bromance between Crusoe and Friday. They bicker like an old married couple and yet when asked if Friday is his slave, Crusoe replies that he would lay down his life for Friday, and Friday would do the same for him. Of course, this declaration came while Crusoe was staked out by his wrists and ankles with a machete pressed up against his private parts. Is Friday more important to you than having more children, Crusoe? While men everywhere are turning off the television, women are moving closer for a better look.
I think the fact that Universal packaged this DVD with a book, adds to my theory that this show is aimed at women. I'm sure DeFoe wrote Robinson Crusoe for the male reader, but these days, male readers are few and far between. It's a clever bonus, but the lack of any other special features cancels out my joy. Which brings me to…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Logic dictates that classic books should make great TV shows. They have a built-in audience, a recognizable premise, and they've withstood the test of time. But the truth is, that unless you're the BBC, classic novels adaptations simply don't cut it on network TV.
Crusoe comes to the party with two inherent problems. One is the historical setting. Unless you're the BBC or Showtime, it's hard to pull in an audience with a series set in any time period but the present or the future—we like the future, for some reason, but we totally shun the past. Historical shows are also expensive to produce so they start out ripe for cancellation as soon as the audience share begins to fall.
The second problem is the narrow vision of the original novel. Imagine if Lost only had two main characters and they were both men. Really cuts down on the variety of character interactions. And how many times can these two be "almost" rescued before it starts looking like Gilligan's Island? Even over the course of 12 episodes, I found myself feeling like I'd see this plot before. Sure there were flashbacks to break up the monotony of the island, but those were my least favorite parts; an attempt at romance and mystery, when all I really wanted was to see Phillip Winchester in a loin cloth, swinging across the island on a vine.
For most TV shows, 12 episodes aren't enough. Either you feel short changed on character and plot development or you fall in love and you're left wanting more. Neither is the case with Crusoe. Whatever NBC's original intention was, 12 episodes is just perfect. You learn all you need to know about the characters, you have action, suspense and romance and when you reach the point where there's nothing new to see, the show is over. That's the joy of the mini-series format and that's what makes this DVD set work.
It's fun, visually stunning, and a fantasy in more than one sense of the word. Don't expect anything more and you won't be disappointed.
This court was prepared to deliver a not guilty verdict but a monkey stole our gavel and he turned it over to a prissy pirate who is demanding a ransom for its safe return. Where's Crusoe when you need him?
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