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NBC's 'Crusoe' is only so-so

Rick Kushman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

It sounds like a sure blockbuster. Take a lush tropical setting, throw in pirates, cannibals, buried treasure, a couple dashing castaways, action, adventure, and, of course, piranha.

All that good stuff makes up the groundwork for NBC's "Crusoe" premiering Friday (at 8 p.m. EDT). But when it's pieced together, when all the swordplay and cliff leaping and running through the forest are added up, it manages to be just OK, with a few moments of whoo-hoo. Should be more whoo-hoo.

"Crusoe" isn't awful, which seems to be the standard compliment this season for a lot of network shows. It's beautifully shot, and at times, it's good escapist fun, particularly if you ignore the holes in logic, though for something like "Crusoe," those are sort of forgivable.

But you'll want to like it more than you do. I wanted to write a better review than this is turning out. The problem is, the show also drags far too much for a series built on action, adventure and dashing castaways.

Some of that may be caused by the too-long, two hour premiere. Or it may be this will never get better. But since the rest of the 13-episode series will have one-hour installments, I'm staying relatively positive. Call this conditional support from a guy who will watch anything with pirates.

The Crusoe in the title, is, of course, Robinson Crusoe, played by a buff, and not afraid to show it, Philip Winchester. It's based on the Daniel Defoe novel, first published in 1719.

But other than the guy's name, Crusoe's native friend Friday (played with charm by Tongayi Chirisa), the shipwreck, and a tree house, the new series seriously departs from the traditional tale.

That's forgivable, too. By the time most people get to Friday night TV, they prefer excitement to literary authenticity. But that means it has to stay exciting and not stall in the second hour with loopy turns and tricks.

One example: Ol' Robin - he calls himself Robin - has built a gadget laden, pulley-infested tree fort that MacGyver would envy. Yet, when Robin and Friday are attacked, they have almost no defenses built in, despite booby trapping half the island. Even worse, one of the attackers somehow just appears in the tree, says hello, then disappears.

The show's other gimmick, aimed more at romance novel fans than pirate followers, is that we learn Robin's story through flashbacks, because you only get a TV show these days if you have flashbacks, thank you "Lost."

Through most of the pilot, though, all we see over and over are softly-lit, misty shots of Robin and the wife he left behind. Apparently they were in love. We got it the first time.

Still, I'm trying to be nice about "Crusoe." The pacing could pick up in the single hour episodes, and the show did get some things right, starting with the luscious look and the friendship between Friday and Robin. The nefarious-yet-cheeky pirates are good, too.

All I'm asking is for more buckle swashing and less silliness.

___

We've got this season's champ for biggest ratings disaster: CW's Sunday night duo of "Valentine" and "Easy Money." And most people around the TV business saw this coming, even before we knew how minor league both shows would turn out.

CW has been trying to produce decent ratings on Sundays since it was formed from the ashes of UPN and WB. This season, CW turned over its Sunday night to a production company called Media Rights Capital. The deal was that MRC would make shows for the whole night - saving CW the production costs - and share in the advertising revenue.

When the Television Critics Association met with CW executives this summer and asked about the deal, CW brass wouldn't answer beyond a dismissive "it's complicated." Even now, both sides have treated the arrangement like it's a spy secret.

But now, the TV industry is thinking CW and MRC should have paid less attention to security and more to making professional television. Both shows have an almost-cable-access patina to them, and viewers reacted about as badly as they could.

This last Sunday, "Valentine" drew 1 million viewers, and "Easy Money" got 750,000. That's worse than most home-remodeling cable shows.

This week, Media Rights announced it's halting production on both series - possibly for good - though MRC told Hollywood trade papers it still plans to produce the 13 episodes CW is apparently stuck with.

___

Finally, in some good news from What'd They Do to My Show, USA Network announced it picked up new seasons of "Burn Notice" and "Psych." Both shows return in early 2009 to resume their current seasons, and this means full seasons beyond that run.

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