Crusoe, Fox History’s adventure drama based on the Daniel Defoe novelRobinson Crusoe, begins not with the shipwrecked hero’s struggle with the elements of nature, or his fight for survival on a marooned island. It starts, instead, with our dashing young hero (played by American actor Philip Winchester) in a heroic pose on a clifftop, surveying the seas with a gilded telescope, and rappelling down to a beachside villa that’s half holiday resort and half mad-scientist workshop.
Defoe lite: Philip Winchester makes for a dashing Crusoe.
The difference is crucial. In choosing not to dwell too long on the hows of Crusoe’s ingenuity in building himself a home on the island, the series avoids the pitfalls of an archetypal survival drama, and becomes a fun, if cheesy, swashbuckling adventure.
In the 2-hour pilot, Crusoe, the only survivor of a shipwreck that has left him stranded on the island for six years, and his companion Friday (Zimbabwean actor Tongayi Chirisa), whom Crusoe rescues from a “band of cannibals”, encounter some pirates and escaped convicts who arrive on the island in search of a legendary treasure. Crusoe is co-opted against his wish into this search, and the situation gets worse when a troop of Spanish Guards turn up to reclaim the runaways.
Crusoe yearns to be back with his wife and child, and his backstory is revealed in little chunks throughout the episode. His chance to go back with the newly arrived pirates is also continually thwarted. Both narratives are compelling, and the pilot itself is a fun stand-alone episode full of drama, intrigue, sword fighting and pirate action. It doesn’t, however, set up much of a story arc for the rest of the season, so it’s difficult to say if Crusoe can sustain the sharp wit and fast pace of its opening hour for the rest of its run.
It’s a light and breezy watch. There is violence but it feels goofy. A lot of things explode, and the barbarity, mostly the result of unsuspecting pirates walking into some fairly painful traps, is delivered with almost comic timing, like an episode of Tom and Jerry, complete with a playful orchestral soundtrack.
Defoe’s original novel, written in 1719, portrayed an uncomfortably idealized “master-servant” relationship between Crusoe and Friday. The colonial overtones of the “enlightened” European vis-à-vis the “savage” are thankfully absent here, and the series tries to be self-conscious about the problematic nature of its original subject matter. Friday, in Fox’s version, is Crusoe’s equal, speaks 12 languages, recites Paradise Lost, and talks to himself in the third person. There’s a sense that the series tries too hard to gloss over the issue, and the spectre of racial stereotyping still hangs uncomfortably over it. It’s not a deal breaker, but it feels a little awry.
But otherwise, the opening hour of Crusoe is great fun. The dialogue is sharp and laced with wit, the humour light, if a tad morbid, and the twin narratives of Crusoe’s present and past predicaments are reasonably compelling and well balanced. Fortunately, the series doesn’t take itself too seriously, and if the rest of Crusoe can live up to the pace of the pilot, this will be an easy, fun series to watch.
Crusoe premieres on Fox History and Entertainment at 9pm on Monday.