Comparisons will inevitably be made to “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but “Crusoe” is really a throwback to the cheerfully silly first-run syndicated hours (“Sinbad!” “Sheena!” “Conan!”) a few years back that sought to ensnare male audiences with generous doses of action amid exotic locales. That NBC has bought into this concept reflects network TV’s lowered expectations, but the series’ two-hour premiere is a respectable effort — handsomely shot and offering old-fashioned end-of-the-week escapism, albeit with a character unable to escape his own island purgatory. That said, this would probably work better as a limited series than an open-ended one.
On its face, “Crusoe” looks to be a family drama — what with the sweeping ocean and jungle vistas, the madcap battle sequences, the male camaraderie between the central duo, over-the-top guest performances and the classic literary underpinnings. Unfortunately, the networks are so out of practice producing family fare that the program possesses an oddly sadistic streak — including several reasonably gruesome deaths, which are played almost entirely for laughs.
Granted, that’s positioned as part of an overall swashbuckling spirit, in a two-hour debut so committed to keeping things moving swiftly that tidbits of backstory dribble out in haphazard, widely spaced flashbacks. Derived from Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe (Phillip Winchester) survived a shipwreck and has stayed alive thanks to surprising 17th-century ingenuity and the help of the local native Friday (Tongayi Chirisa) — who, softening the book’s un-PC aspects, speaks multiple languages and is easily more sophisticated than the pirates who invade this paradise.
Said buccaneers arrive looking for buried treasure (arrgh), abducting Crusoe to assist them with a treasure map carved into the back of a former prisoner. Crusoe spends most of the two hours trying to escape, before he and Friday stage a “Lethal Weapon”-like stand against semi-impossible odds.
The flashbacks, meanwhile, merely hint at the life Crusoe left behind, including his wife (Anna Walton), father (Sean Bean) and ostensible benefactor Jeremiah Blackthorn (Sam Neill), though the brooding music whenever he appears suggests a nefarious streak.
Mostly, there’s plenty of spectacular South African scenery and some nice interplay between Crusoe and Friday as played by Winchester and Chirisa, united in friendship and a blood debt despite their cultural differences. The flashbacks, by contrast, aren’t terribly compelling — seeming to exist, primarily, to augment the unknown leads (or at least Mipcom sales) with some more familiar faces in supporting roles. Still, “Crusoe’s” viability beyond this maiden voyage hinges largely on what new threats the waves bring lapping ashore each week, which sounds dicey at best.
In a larger sense, “Crusoe” reflects the inconsistency in NBC’s development approach this season, inasmuch as the show wants to be light, frothy family fun, while garnishing that with a nasty streak doubtless deemed necessary to satisfy today’s jaded youth.
So while “Crusoe” could scavenge some modest business on Friday nights, odds are that the show to help rescue NBC from the hole it’s in is still lurking out there, somewhere, on the horizon.