In Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s catchy opening number for the pilot of Galavant, a thief imprisoned in a very Medieval pillory refers to the show as a “fairytale cliche.” It’s a knowing wink to the audience, a gesture that tells us ABC’s new musical series is well-versed in sword-and-sorcery tropes, and has no bones about skewering them. But unlike Shrek, The Princess Bride, series creator Dan Fogelman’s own Tangled, and especially Monty Python And The Holy Grail (which has been frequently referenced in the show’s marketing), there’s little subversion to be found after the first episode. Instead, Galavant devolves into the kind of broad, topical humor you’d find in any generic sitcom, taking little advantage of the show’s unique concept.
Airing in the Sunday-night fairytale slot usually occupied by Once Upon A Time (currently on winter break), Galavant centers on the titular hero (Joshua Sasse) and his quest to win back the hand of his lover, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), who’s been kidnapped and forced to marry the land’s foppish King Richard (Timothy Omundson). However, in a departure from the usual damsel-in-distress yarn, Madalena decides her life might be better spent with royalty, no matter how much she won’t be able to stand her husband. This prompts her to spurn Galavant when he shows up in the throne room to whisk her back to his village.
The plot twist works because it riffs on what we’ve come to expect from such stories. Madalena’s supposed to choose the dashing knight over the simpering monarch, not reject her beloved and send him into a drunken spiral of regret. On a similarly surprising note, Omundson and Fogelman infuse their wimpy king—a once subversive archetype that has since become a cliché in itself—with an unexpected dash of empathy. “I’m such a bully,” he remorses after realizing he’s sent several generations of his kitchen servants to their deaths for preparing undercooked mutton. Omundson plays Richard as if he knows how ineffective and cruel he is, but is too afraid to say it. It’s a self-loathing, scenery-chewing performance that puts the character in the company of other inept rulers from pop culture such as Lord Farquaad, Prince Humperdinck, and Prince John of Disney’s animated Robin Hood, only with a touch more sympathy.
Of course, the union of King Richard and Madalena isn’t enough to keep Galavant away and, after some encouragement from his squire, Sid (Luke Youngblood) and Princess Isabella (Karen David)—whose parents and homeland of Valencia are held captive by Richard—he vows to sober up and win back Madalena (again). Yet for whatever reason, it’s here, after the pilot, that the show’s humor shifts from subversive to anachronistic in the worst way possible.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s plenty of fun to be had with modernity in a Middle-Ages setting, but there’s no logical reason to name a rival knight played by John Stamos in the second episode Sir Jean Hamm, beyond it just being a cheap reference to Mad Men. Stamos’ character doesn’t share any traits with the real-life Hamm or Don Draper, and the moniker is never elaborated upon after his introduction. Making matters worse is his penchant for “yo mama” jokes. Granted, Galavant references the outdatedness of Hamm’s humor when he encounters him at a jousting tournament en route to King Richard’s castle, but if there’s anything more exhausted than a “yo mama” joke, it’s acknowledging how lame a “yo mama” actually is.
Like the first episode, the handful of moments that do land in “Joust Friends” all involve turning well-worn fairytale cliches on their heads, from a knight vomiting through the grill of his helmet to a jousting match that moves at the pace of a drunken snail. And to be fair, King Richard’s character continues to evolve, especially when he solicits his brutish manservant Gareth (Vinnie Jones) for advice on how to be more masculine, and thus more appealing, to Madalena. Once again, while we’ve seen this type of character in fairytales before, we’ve rarely seen him try to change his ways.
But for every one of these successful bits, there’s a gay joke or a montage of Galavant training for the tournament to a song reminiscent of Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger.” The latter scene might actually work if the arrangement was given some kind of Medieval spin—perhaps lyrics written in a Middle English vocabulary or a lute solo in place of a guitar solo. But no, it’s performed with power chords and words that aren’t much crazier than already-existing motivational rock songs. So while the whole thing pokes fun at training montages, it’s done with far less absurdity and laughs than a number of TV shows and films that came before it, including South Park and Wet Hot American Summer. With such a seasoned composer-lyricist team at the helm, the sequence feels like a wasted opportunity, especially when the pilot’s two original songs (the second being a soft-shoe number where King Richard describes all the ways he’d like to torture Galavant) work so well.
Still, the fact that every new episode of Galavant features original songs at all is somewhat unprecedented, and enough reason to revisit the series over the next three weekends. Hopefully the show’s future music, stories, and, most importantly, humor, will place a greater emphasis on reinventing the tropes of fairytales and musicals instead of just recycling them.
- As much as I knew King Richard’s kick to Galavant’s face was going to be a wimpy one, it was hands-down the funniest moment of the pilot.
- Fortunately, most of the cast can sing very well, and the ones who can’t still know how to sell it.
- Did anyone else find it strange that Madalena was so quick to throw away her relationship with Galavant, but also so quick to start hating King Richard? It would have been nice to see her try and put on a good face for the marriage, at least for a little while before the insults started flying.
- I know he’s been all over TV and film the past five years, but I literally haven’t seen Vinnie Jones in anything since Clive Barker’s underrated The Midnight Meat Train back in 2009. He really is the perfect guy to play a disgruntled heavy like Gareth.
- As badly as his part was written, I’ll gladly watch John Stamos play a bumbling knight any day of the week.
- Galavant really is an odd little show, and somewhat of an artistic gamble on ABC’s part. I’m excited to be reviewing it for The A.V. Club, and discussing it with you all in the comments section. What did everyone else think?