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Television Review

As a castaway, he hasn't lost his good looks

Philip Winchester (left) as Robinson Crusoe and Tongayi Chirisa as Friday in NBC's two-hour drama. Philip Winchester (left) as Robinson Crusoe and Tongayi Chirisa as Friday in NBC's two-hour drama. (kelly walsh/nbc)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 17, 2008
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In his 1719 novel "Robinson Crusoe," did Daniel Defoe provide his shipwrecked hero with a weightlifting bench? Also, can teeth-whitening strips be fashioned out of banana peels? And finally, did Crusoe have access to sunscreen, since he had to remove his puffy shirt as often as Matthew McConaughey?

Just a few questions that may quickly pass through your mind as the two-hour premiere of NBC's "Crusoe" slowly passes across your TV screen. Obviously, the new series adaptation of Defoe, which begins tonight at 8 on Channel 7, isn't loyal to the book. It's inevitably glammed up, with Philip Winchester's Crusoe looking like a GQ model and with pirates who appear to be auditioning for another installment of "Pirates of the Caribbean," including one villain who looks suspiciously like Bob Dylan.

But did "Crusoe" have to be so loyal to "Gilligan's Island" and "Survivor"? The idea of a series based on "Robinson Crusoe" has an enormous amount of potential right now, since "Lost" has reinvented the castaway trope in recent years, and since TV viewers no longer require black-and-white good-vs.-evil scripting. But instead of breaking new ground, "Crusoe" falls back on hokey Saturday matinee swashbuckling, a treasure map, explosions, and jungle sets with fake torches that invite you to look for "Survivor" host Jeff Probst around the next boulder.

The show's Crusoe isn't a figure of religious, spiritual, and moral struggle, so much as he is an action-adventure hero who has rigged the island with cool booby traps and built himself an awesome tree house. He has a buddy, Friday (Tongayi Chirisa), with whom he has buddy banter and a difference of opinion regarding cannibalism, and he has a trusty dog named Dundee. Crusoe has an unfolding back story, too, which we see in flashbacks, and which feature Sam Neill. If the 13-episode season ever develops into something more than a jaunty live-action cartoon, it will probably be thanks to the mysteries of that plotline.

The "Crusoe" premiere is two hours long, presumably to fully cast an exotic island spell on viewers. But far too much of that time is spent running among pirates and trees, with Winchester using his noble nose as his best acting tool, and I suspect that even kids who are inclined to enjoy this kind of romp will get sleepy and dopey. The show wants to be a ride at Disney World, but in the end it's as lively as a cup of warm milk.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

Crusoe

Starring: Philip Winchester, Tongayi Chirisa, Sam Neill

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 8-10

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