October 17, 2008

A ripped-shirt Rube Goldberg

Television: Drama Series:  Shades of Lost, Survivor and Pirates

The sexiest Crusoe yet"How strange a checker-work of providence is the life of man," reflected the forlorn shipwreck survivor Robinson Crusoe in the opening pages of Daniel Defoe's timeless novel. How stranger yet is the original castaway's TV makeover nearly three centuries later.

The new series Crusoe (tonight, NBC, CITY-TV, 8 p.m.) begins its first frames with the same quote, minus the word "checker," which would likely confuse modern-day viewers. And thereafter, all similarities to the book end.

The principal characters and setting remain intact, but Crusoe turns the literary classic into a rollicking action series of feature-film scope. The TV version features elements of both Survivor and Lost, as well as the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.
And:The depiction of Crusoe as a 17th-century MacGyver is made clear in the first episode: A boatload of pirates row ashore in search of buried treasure--what else? Some of the pirates bumble into Crusoe's elaborate booby-traps, resulting in several grisly deaths. Crusoe's postmodernist tree house is a bamboo-themed Batcave rigged with pulleys, zip lines, elevators and, presumably, indoor plumbing.

At the same time, Crusoe is a buddy show. In the book, Crusoe rescued Friday from a tribe of fellow cannibals, thereby making the simple native his loyal manservant; such was the thinking of the British empire in those days. In the TV series, the new Friday, played by Zimbabwean actor Tongayi Chirisa, is Crusoe's complete equal, as it should be. He's also his best friend, verging on life partner.
'Crusoe':  A Good Place to Be StrandedThe premiere, unfortunately, boils down to chase after chase after chase--Crusoe being captured by the pirates, then escaping, then being captured again, then escaping again. He also traps and clobbers pirates with his own elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions made during weeks of solitude. During one long sequence, Crusoe is marched through the jungle by the pirates, who expect to be led to the treasure. Curiously--but really not so curiously--Crusoe's journey is divided into sequences of shirt on, shirt off, shirt on, shirt off, giving Winchester a chance to parade his underwear model's physique and, presumably, giving the series some appeal for female viewers. Or whomever.

For all its shortcomings and flat flourishes, "Crusoe" has one very significant thing going for it, a virtue that can be summarized in four reassuring words: At Least It's Different. It bears no resemblance to the crime procedurals that glut the network schedules, and though it has similarities both to ABC's "Lost" and to the CBS reality veteran "Survivor," it's exactly like neither.
Comment:  The series was filmed in the Seychelles Islands off the east coast of Africa. For all I know, it's set there as well. That would explain the presence of Friday and his fellow black tribesmen.

So the series, unlike the book, has nothing to do with the indigenous people of the Americas. Once again, Hollywood has given a key Native role to a non-Native. Add Friday to the growing list of racist casting decisions (along with Silver Fox, Tonto, and Jacob Black).

Why not cast whites as blacks?

Let's suppose Johnny Depp, Taylor Lautner, and Lynn Collins discovered they were 1/16th black as well as 1/16th (or whatever) Indian. I can just imagine the Hollywood studio execs' eyes lighting up. Taylor Lautner as Kunta Kinte in a remake of Roots! Johnny Depp as Malcolm X in a remake of his autobiography! Lynn Collins as Celie in a remake of The Color Purple!

Why not? We're presuming these actors are as much black as they are Indian. So why not have these whitebread stars play iconic black characters? Why not go for cute and popular actors if it'll sell more tickets? Maybe they can wear shoe polish if they don't look black enough.

Who cares, right? It's just a movie, right? Quit complaining and get a life. Etc.

Needless to say, that'll never happen. Blacks and others would be outraged at the bastardization of their history, culture, and literature. People would be organizing protests, marching in the streets, demanding justice.

But no one hesitates to substitute non-Natives for Natives. There's no good explanation for this other than anti-Indian racism. In Tonto's case the racists are at Disney. In Friday's case they're at NBC making Crusoe.


dmarks said...

I forgot to watch it. I know you are a fan of the book, so you must have seen this. So was it any good?

Rob said...

Short answer: Take MacGyver or the Professor from Gilligan's Island. Make him the action hero in Pirates of the Caribbean. Turn the whole thing into a Saturday morning kiddie show.

Based on the first episode, that's roughly what NBC's Crusoe is. I don't plan to watch the second episode. I'd say you can skip this series and not miss anything special.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if it occurred to anyone that slash is pretty much cliché now. Incest is the new "edgy" ship in fanficiton today. (Difficult to do for Crusoe.)

Anyway, getting back to Crusoe, can't an Indian play an Indian at least once? My personal favorite was Chris Rock's "That's like hiring John Ritter to play Malcolm X."