NBC’s Crusoe lightweight fun

Friday night needs a little fantasy, and Crusoe fits the bill for putting your mind in neutral and just coasting along for the ride.

Just don’t look too hard at the construction of this leaky vessel.

NBC tosses its hat into the island castaway arena, far behind CBS’ Survivor and ABC’s Lost, in this throwback to an ageless classic about a man stranded on a tropical island, using his wits and skills to survive while trying to figure out a way to get home to his family.

People tend to pop up on a regular basis on this deserted island, then leave without taking our desperate castaway with them. Pirates, mutineers, cannibals, renegades… who could blame poor Robinson for not wanting to tag along with that lot of undesirables?

Besides, once he’s off the island there’s no more series.

Could there be a more suitable name for a swashbuckling hero than Philip Winchester? The Montana-born actor honed his craft on the London stage, and brings a sort of Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones playfulness to the role of Robinson Crusoe.

Few actors could steal the show from Winchester, but Tongayi Chirisa as Friday, Crusoe’s “savage” friend, does just that. Chirisa, 25, is a Zimbabwean actor who plays the intelligent, multi-lingual Friday with a wild flair that adds not only humor but also humanity to the role. It’s the ultimate buddy flick when the two are on the screen together.

Loosely based on the ubiquitous Daniel Defoe work, this series owes more to MacGyver than the 1719 adventure tale regarded as the first English language novel that spawned countless spin-offs and cultural references.

In this incarnation, Robinson’s a married man with a family back in England. He longs for his true love Susannah (Anna Walton). While his main goal is returning to England, he uses his time to build the coolest treehouse in the world, and plenty of other contraptions. In the pilot, he snares bad guys and makes orange juice with his Rube Goldberg-like inventions.

There’s an anachronistic quality about the writing that gets downright goofy at times. The pirates couldn’t be more stereotypical, yet oddly engaging. The head pirate Lynch (Jonathan Pienaar) has a breezy quality that belies his tendancy to kill crew members who get in his way.

There’s also a sassy woman pirate named Judy (Georgina Rylance), who outwits and outfights Robinson at every turn. We’d love to see more of her, however a publicist on the show says she isn’t scheduled to return in the near future.

More’s the pity.

The flashbacks to Robinson’s former life in England are supposed to help flesh out the storylines, but instead the intrusions jar viewers out of the vivid world created on the island. Instead of the dreamy, otherworldly sequences, we’d rather just see a straightforward look at what Robinson’s life was like leading up to his isolation on the island.

We do learn that his mother may have committed suicide by drowning, and that his father (Sean Bean) has a mysterious rich friend named Blackthorn (Sam Neill), who is Robinson’s patron. There’s a hint in the pilot that Blackthorn might actually be Robinson’s papa, and that his intentions are less than honorable.

So it’s all Masterpiece Theater back home in England, and Gilligan’s Island with Crusoe, which makes for an uneven tone. The two stories need to blend more closely in style. Or better yet, just let the adventures on the island take center stage.

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