Crusoe: Series Premiere

[17 October 2008]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Like a Fading Dream

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

Trudging through the jungle with a new pirate acquaintance, Robinson Crusoe (Philip Winchester) is asked to explain his relationship to the man he calls Friday (Tongayi Chirisa). Ah, he says, they met under stressful circumstances (Crusoe saved Friday being eaten by fellow cannibals), and have since developed a mutual respect. “I had this idea I was going to train him as a servant,” Crusoe half-smiles. “But why he’s stuck with me, I don’t know.”

So much for Daniel Defoe. NBC’s updated version of the classic adventure novel, called Crusoe, will not have any black man calling a white man “Master.” Rather, whenever possible, Crusoe extols the brilliance and ingenuity of his companion. “That ‘savage,’” he says, scare-quotes popping, “can make himself understood in 12 languages. It took him six months to learn mine. I’ve read him Paradise Lost and now he recites it back at me.” Aha, gloats the pirate, so “He can’t read for himself?”

Crusoe is thus established as the more nuanced thinker of the two white guys, the one with a black friend. This is not to say he’s entirely progressive. In fact, he spends a good deal of time during this first episode recalling his so-called civilized past, yearning for a simpler order of things. This makes for some extremely awkward transitions, sometimes helped along by his oddly occasional voice-over (“As to the events that led to my circumstance on the island,” he muses following the revelation that his father [Sean Bean] handed him over to the wealthy doorway-lurker Mr. Blackthorn [Sam Neill], “I believe they began on that day”). It also means his memories center on his beloved wife, Susannah (Anna Walton), blond and white-gowned and repeatedly appearing in soft-focused showers of pink confetti.

Crusoe states more than once that there’s only “one woman” for him, though he also admits to Friday that he is capable of what he calls “the Crusoe Effect,” that is, inspiring women to swoon. This is demonstrated by the flirtations of the pirates’ sole lady member, Judy (Georgina Rylance), who spars with Crusoe verbally and with her sword for most of the episode, until she just can’t help herself and gives him a long luscious kiss before an awed and appreciative Friday. Before this inevitable clinch, Judy—who looks awfully well-groomed compared to her fellow, more stereotypically toothless and gnarly pirate mates—seems content to follow orders from their lively leader Lynch (Jonathan Pienaar), determined to force Crusoe to lead them to treasure they believe is buried on the island.

The pirates’ existence in the premiere grants repeated sequences of big-scored fighting, leaping, and running, even some shooting and exploding (they bring gunpowder and, it turns out, Crusoe has quite the weapons stash at his secret treehouse, where he and Friday run through montages of Gilliganish gizmo-making). The pirates also suggest that Crusoe’s weekly adventures will involve repeated contact with assorted visitors to the island. His being stuck there no matter who shows up, in addition to his out-of-joint flashbacks, makes Crusoe seem something like a proto-Survivor contestant or, weirder, a proto-cast member on Lost.

None of this bodes especially well for the series, in terms of repetition and limitation. More promising is the strange relationship between Crusoe and Friday. For his part, the strapping, sandy-haired Crusoe is plainly enamored of his exceptional cohort, and with good cause: Friday repeatedly shows up very conveniently to save him, whereupon they engage in a sort of bonding banter: they call each other names, ironically observe narrow escapes or discuss who owes whom what. Following one such rescue, Friday admires the series of jungly traps that Crusoe has set, which take out a couple of hard-breathing, fast- pursuing pirates. “What kind of idiot,” Friday asks Crusoe, “builds all those traps then runs to the beach without a weapon?”

The question hovers over the episode until near its end, when Friday calls out Crusoe’s lingering prejudice. “Those traps were not for your kind,” he asserts, “They were for mine.” Though Crusoe denies this, Friday goes on. “You saw the English flag, you never thought you had anything to fear from your own. You know better now. Men are just men.” His comparison between Christianity and cannibalism (“My people eat the flesh of their enemies while your people drink the blood of their God”) points out the similar rituals and rites that ordain seeming civilization, and Crusoe appears to absorb this lesson. Still, he worries that Friday, “technically speaking, is still a cannibal.” Friday reassures him that he’s content to eat goats, as long as they last, whacking away at fruits with a huge knife, preparing dinner for the white man. He keeps his back turned to Crusoe, who worries still: “What if the goats die?”  His back turned to Crusoe, Friday smiles, “Then, do not fall asleep.” Whack!

On its face, Crusoe seems bizarrely timed, if not downright retro. Friday states plainly that he is not Crusoe’s slave, and their interactions show them to be more like buddies than Defoe could have imagined. Still, the premise is not a little disturbing in late 2008. Near the end of this premiere episode, a flashback to their first encounter is attributed to Friday and not the incessantly self-loving Crusoe. Though this particular shift showcases what Friday owes Crusoe (his life), it may also indicate a certain self-awareness. This story, no matter how it started, cannot belong only to Crusoe.

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