Monday, January 5, 2009

My Man Saturday

The producers and executives of the major television networks have been falling short for years, and the quality shows piling up on the trash heap due to their negligence is only getting bigger.

One such show this season, largely unreported, is Crusoe, the retelling of perhaps the most popular novel of all time by Daniel Defoe. This series is unique for a few reasons, one of which being that it is made by a British production company, commissioned by NBC. (Apparently this hasn't been done for a very long time. ) Perhaps that is why it has, for 8 consecutive episodes, shown a level of quality higher than even some of the top-rated programs of prime time. Maybe the synthesis of British skill, in acting, writing and directing, and the format demanded by an American audience is why it outshines its competition. (It has the consistent excitement of a Lost-style program, with the elaborate set of a Rome, though far far right arm for a week as tenant of the Treehouse.) Plus, despite across-the-pond production, it does not suffer from that horrible fate that makes Doctor Who, when aired on SciFi or BBCAmerica, look like it was filmed with a cheesy 90s sitcom camera.

Crusoe and Friday are solid, articulate characters, acted with the right amount of action star and West End thespian. The enduring nature of their friendship, through self-doubt and external tests, is a bit on the nose but in the end always believable. However the woman-in-disguise-as-a-man, Olivia, is a forced and uninteresting drag on the story, much like the actress was as Nadia on Alias. Besides, why waste camera time on her shabby female mustache, when you have the sweeping beauty of Philip well as the tropical views of South Africa. Throw in some minor characters played by Sean Bean and Sam Neill and there's some serious acting chops assembled within one hour.

Unfortunately, even if you cared to read television and entertainment news, it is unlikely you even know this show exists. (I'd call it this year's New Amsterdam.) NBC's decision to move it from Friday nights (bad) to Saturday nights (worse) might as well be an advertisement for its Direct-to-DVD sale. The flashbacks in particular tend to slow the stories down, and leave Crusoe treading water for too long on a weekly basis. Yet through conflict and conversation, this show doesn't just deal with pirates and spirits and treasure, but faith, deceit, enterprise and self-reliance. These larger themes are the kind of thing The Sarah Connor Chronicles tries to explore with forced artistry and never succeeds, yet is much more widely recognized as quality programming.

While Terminator is a decades old franchise, Robinson Crusoe has been a best-selling novel since the 1700s. This latest incarnation, while not 100% faithful to the original nor massively profound with its own originality, provides the much beleaguered TV viewer with an actual world of imagination and promise, the kind of place you think about while falling asleep, in the hopes that when you close your eyes you will be sitting in Crusoe's rocking chair, looking out at the enormous treeline.

...with Robinson in various degrees of undress nearby.

So someone, please, try and save it. Or at least commission a few more. There's no earthly reason Lipstick Jungle deserves 2 seasons and Crusoe doesn't.

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