Premieres tonight on NBC, 8:00 p.m. ET77:00 p.m. CT
Everyone's got a reason for being drawn to the Robinson Crusoe story in its varied iterations, whether it be for the philosophical considerations of man's tenuous self-sufficiency, or the stories' meticulous descriptions of how an ingenious soul survives isolation. Me, I've always liked the contraptions. Thanks more to the Crusoe-esque Swiss Family Robinson (and the Disney version thereof) than to Daniel Defoe's original novel, an elaborate array of huts, booby traps and rudimentary gadgets have become a major part of a lot of Crusoe narratives; and the fantasy of living in a big treehouse stocked with improbable doo-dads still appeals to the part of me that used to turn cardboard boxes, blankets and old toys into my imaginary superhero headquarters.
It's because of that treehouse fantasy that I was initially excited by the first episode of NBC's mini-series Crusoe, which begins deep into the story. Forget the shipwreck, the long months of loneliness, the befriending and conversion of a cannibal, and the process of learning to make do. Within minutes of the opening of Crusoe, our heroic castaway (played by Philip Winchester) spots a ship manned by pirates, then flees through the jungle, aided by tripwire darts, rope-and-pulley gliders, and the unerring aim of his man Friday (played by Tongayi Chirisa). This is not some tediously faithful retelling of Robinson Crusoe. This version jumps straight to the good parts.
And yet there's something tawdry about a Robinson Crusoe that's all chases and swordfights and pirates, with minimal soul-searching. Crusoe feels a little opportunistic, like an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Pirates Of The Caribbean-style swashbuckling by tying it to a known literary property. There's a soupcon of Lost in the recipe too, manifesting in Crusoe's flashbacks to his boyhood, his wife and kids, his mysterious patron (played by Sam Neill), and his first encounter with Friday. The idea is to deepen the character by giving him a richer backstory, including a hint of mystery about why he's really on the island. The attempt to contemporize is understandable, but that doesn't make it any less cheesy.
Also in the contemporizing column: the tinny adventure cues (often lightly comical), and the character of Friday, who playfully mocks Crusoe's escape attempts–"I was enjoying The Idiot Show," he laughs–and lets the Englishman know in no uncertain terms that he is a companion and counselor, but "I am not your slave." Unfortunately, without the era-appropriate slavery angle, this Friday becomes something of a Magical Negro, there to listen and counter when Crusoe contemplates human evil and "how strange a work of providence is the life of a man."
But again: Crusoe's not really about early 18th century race relations or spiritual inquiry or any of that stuff. It's about crossing a piranha-infested river in a giant hamster wheel, and making orange juice with a cobbled-together device consisting of six squeezers and a spigot. To be honest, I have no plans to watch any more of Crusoe. But if I were 10 years old, this might well be my new favorite show.
-What's your favorite version of Crusoe? In a comparative literature class in college, we read a translation of Michel Tournier's Friday, which tells the story from Friday's point of view, and I remember it being a provocative meditation on colonialism. Not enough contraptions, though.