October 17, 2008

Not Quite Swept Away By a so-so ‘Crusoe’

By Robert Bianco

This season, it's viewers who have been left stranded.

Nowhere is that more true than at NBC, which, pound for pound, has produced the worst new fall slate since those heady days of Manimal and Mr. Smith. Only in a year in which the network has already given us Knight Rider, Kath & Kim and My Own Worst Enemy could Crusoe be said to exceed expectations. It's bad, but it's not that bad.

Made on the apparent cheap in South Africa by an international consortium, this desert island adventure is, as you'd guess, roughly based on the Daniel Defoe classic Robinson Crusoe, with a notable assist from such later incarnations as Swiss Family Robinson and Lost in Space.

You'll also notice the camp-revisionist influence of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but considering the talent involved and the money spent, it's best to ratchet back your comparison points to syndicated fantasies like Hercules.

Well, with one caveat. While Crusoe is generally family fare along the lines of those films and shows, it does have an odd violent streak that parents may not completely appreciate. It's one thing to let Crusoe fight the pirates, but the pleasure he and the show take in dispatching them -- and the lingering shots of their deaths -- borders on the sick.

Still, it probably doesn't do to take Crusoe too seriously, as no one involved seems to have. The goal here is light diversion, or as light as you can get when someone is shipwrecked on a "desolate island, void of all hope of recovery."

For a desolate island, it certainly gets its fair share of visitors. There's Crusoe himself (Philip Winchester, who's one of the series' best assets), shipwrecked under shady circumstances, and Friday (Tongayi Chirisa), a loyal companion Crusoe rescued from cannibals. Just in tonight's two-hour premiere alone, they have to fight off a Treasure Island-full of pirate and Spanish invaders, who converge in search of buried loot.

In between fights, Crusoe flashes back to England, which allows the show to publicize cameos by the two big names in the extended cast: Sean Bean and Sam Neill. As fond as you may be of them, their scenes are low points in a show that is better off when island-bound.

While adults will approve of the scenery, offhand humor and mild attempts at cultural sensitivity, children will like the sword fights and Crusoe's ingenuity. No fenced-in cave home for this Crusoe: He built a treehouse mansion that makes that Swiss family look lazy. Not to mention ziplines, bridges, booby traps and assorted other MacGyver-ish contrivances. For the first hour, the sheer silly energy of the contraptions and the appeal of the two stars carry Crusoe along.

But you may find yourself tiring of plot holes you can steer a galleon through and the second-rate nature of much of the cast, and wondering how you make a series out of two people trapped on a deserted island. Which is why the big question isn't how Crusoe gets off this island, but whether you'll come back.

If you don't, being stranded may be the least of Crusoe's problems.


NBC, tonight, 8 ET/PT

** out of four (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>