In the two-hour premiere of Crusoe, the expensive-looking and silly new 13-part television series NBC adapted from literature’s stranded-man classic, our hero (Philip Winchester) keeps having flashbacks to the civilized world he’s left behind. I have to admit, I kept having flashbacks, too — to the 10-year-old me who was awed and thrilled by Daniel Defoe’s iconic story of ill-fated and exotic banishment, cultural upheaval and self-sufficiency. Although Defoe’s Crusoe wanted to return to society, his predicament seemed hopelessly romantic to my hermitlike youthful self, who preferred a closed-door bedroom hideaway where books flourished, drawing paper and pens were plentiful, the television was like a warming sun, and endlessly replayed LPs were the native sounds. I didn’t want to live on an island, mind you, just my island.
So the appeal of the new Crusoe is that it is strictly boys-adventure fluff, and though its Pirates of the Caribbean–wannabe aspirations are bald-faced, and its portrayal of Crusoe as a creative contraption-inventor veers it dangerously into Gilligan’s Island territory (yes, I was into that, too, as a kid), it sends a clear message to the boyhood part of my brain, and perhaps the adult-who-needs-a-vacation part, too: Why would you ever try to leave such an awesome place? I think I was secretly happy this wasn’t some HBO squalorama version of the tale: grim, dirty, steeped in alienation psychology, a Marxist allegory with male nudity and perhaps a bestiality subplot. Instead, it’s filmed in a picturesque stretch of South Africa, where the beaches, blue water, rock cliffs, jungle greens and sunlit coves spell tropical getaway. While the show’s Crusoe may pine for England, he certainly seems at home here: an open-shirted swashbuckler with a frickin’ tricked-out, comfortable palace in the trees, cool-as-shit tripwire traps that capture marauders in pointy-stick clamps and home-design pulley technology that would have made Rube Goldberg invent the term “Rad!” This is a guy who could build a boat but maybe doesn’t want to. The clincher is a moment late in the pilot, when he’s sitting with Friday (Tongayi Chirisa) on the exquisitely candlelit, ocean-view deck of his Architectural Digest–like aerie in a moment of sad-eyed despair over a missed rescue opportunity, and all I’m thinking is, you built a vacation home in paradise, dude. You can’t fool me. Contestants on Survivor have it rougher. Invent the time-share immediately.
Friday, meanwhile, is still a cannibal rescued by Crusoe, but he’s also half of the original buddy team, a quippy warrior who is both exasperated by and inexorably tied to his foolhardy white companion. In a humorous 21st-century upending of the book’s colonialist bent, Friday’s learning of English in six months — and knowledge of 12 languages in all — is considered a sign of his superiority, and he makes fun of Crusoe for never being able to pronounce his African name. In other words, these two are the show’s love story, not the diamond-commercial-stylized remembrances of rose petals, stained glass and diffused light that are Crusoe’s flashbacks to life with bride Susannah (Anna Walton). It remains to be seen if the series will hew to the novel’s background detail of Crusoe being a slave-gatherer at the time he was shipwrecked, but so far, slavery is less an issue here than a fightin’ word thrown around in the heat of a romantic quarrel. When Crusoe appears skittish at Friday’s declaration that he’s staying with him after any rescue (men and their commitment issues!), he jokingly inquires if he’s supposed to “release” Friday. “I am not your slave!” Friday says indignantly before storming off. (Later, loudly slicing up fruit for dinner, he gets Crusoe back with a reminder that if they were to ever run out of goats, Friday has other options. “Don’t fall asleep,” he says with a well-timed chop and a smile only the camera sees. Call them the Swiss Family Bickersons.)
Winchester and Chirisa make a charming team ultimately, certainly well-suited to this handsomely mounted, action-packed outing around them, and you root for them easily against the mercenary hordes in the pilot looking for rumored gold. And while the emphasis of the show is family-friendly derring-do — the two-hour opener includes a sword fight with a lusty, empowered female pirate, and daring dives off precipices — there’s plenty of violence to go around, too, from gun battles and arrow marksmanship to piranha-infested waters and, for that cartoony touch, the well-placed tree tap that loosens the braining coconut. To heighten the show’s serialized nature, there are flashbacked dribs and drabs of nefarious intrigue in the circumstances surrounding the origins of Crusoe’s fated trip, related to his wealthy but mysterious father-in-law, played by Sam Neill in full crooked-grin mode.
The irony of a series like Crusoe is that its provenance is a classic, much-analyzed novel, but the creators and NBC really just hope you’ll watch it because it’s Lost without the pretentious reach. And that’s fine, too. Crusoe treats being cast away as hardly an existential crisis but discovering a clean, bright adventureland of old-school thrills, punctuated by occasional displays of expected mourning. I’m not saying Crusoe doesn’t really miss his Susannah. But why not send for her? She’ll love what he’s done with the place.
CRUSOE | NBC | Fridays, 8 p.m.