Fall TV preview: New shows for fall
Premieres 7 p.m., Oct. 17
Genre: Action-adventure drama
Description: A retelling of the classic Daniel Defoe tale, with Robinson Crusoe washing up on the shores of a desert island and attempting to survive with the help of his friend Friday.
"Crusoe" explores the perils and challenges facing the world's most famous castaway as Crusoe (Philip Winchester, "Flyboys," "Thunderbirds") and his native friend Friday (Tongayi Chirisa) struggle to survive on a desert island with little more than their wits. Overcoming marauding militias, hungry cannibals, wild cats, starvation and apocalyptic lightning storms, Crusoe dreams of the day he will be reunited with his beloved family.
Allowed to develop away from the bonds of 17th Century life, the ingenious Crusoe builds a breathtaking and altogether modern home high up in the trees to elude his enemies. Friday and Crusoe's deep friendship is pushed to the limit as opportunities to escape their island paradise, and the people they meet there, consistently challenge them to choose between loyalty and freedom.
This version is going to be a new take on the old story of a man who sets sail from England, his ship is wrecked in a storm and he's thrown overboard winding up alone on a deserted island where he has to fen for himself. In time, he is joined by an escaped slave whom he names Friday. Ben Silverman, NBC's head honcho, described the proposed series in this way: "It's part MacGyver, part contemporary morality tale about race and personal discovery, part comedy and part Castaway meets Survivor." As envisioned, this Robinson Crusoe will need to be clever indeed. It's going to keep the time period 1650s, but when Crusoe finds Friday, he'll presumably be treating him as if it were today with regard to race relations.
So the latest version of Crusoe eliminates the good Indian and emphasizes the "bad" Indians. What else is new? We saw similar distortions of real and literary history in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Comanche Moon.
Once again, Latin American Indians get stereotyped as killers and cannibals. If they live anywhere in the vicinity of the Caribbean Sea, it's a good bet they'll sacrifice their victims and eat the remains. These Indians didn't build complex cities or civilizations, they munched people.
Incidentally, the word "hungry" in NBC's description is flatly wrong. No Indians practiced cannibalism routinely because they were hungry. If they did it, they did it as a religious ritual akin to eating the body of Christ. By ingesting their enemies, they hoped to gain power from them.
This apparent bastardization of Defoe's novel is especially annoying to me because I've read it several times. Along with The Wizard of Oz, Stand by for Mars (the first book in the "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" series) and Robert Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky, it was one of my childhood favorites. It probably was one of the subtle influences that led me to specialize in Indians and multiculturalism.
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.
Below: Friday the non-Native (Tongayi Chirisa on NBC's Crusoe).