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Lavish 'Crusoe' with a luxury treehouse

October 17, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

It's not quite fair to say that the treehouse is the star of "Crusoe," a 13-week NBC series that takes off from, but does not strictly speaking adapt, Daniel Defoe's "The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner," to give it only part of its full title. But it would be much less fun without it.

The jungle treehouse looms large in the juvenile imagination, including the juvenile imagination I still possess. (Or that possesses me.) The house in "Crusoe," which premieres tonight with back-to-back episodes, is a particularly intoxicating construction, a gadget-filled, ropes-and-pulleys, wind-and-water-harnessing, "Walt Disney's Swiss Family Robinson" kind of treehouse, but more gracefully configured and in design-award harmony with its environment. It has a really sweet kitchen too, including a nifty multi-orange orange-juicer. It's homey and luxurious, by jungle standards, but it's also, you know, a really cool fort, protected by really cool mechanical traps. Man, the things you can do with bamboo.

There are people in it too: castaway Crusoe (Philip Winchester, built like Tarzan), his pal Friday (Tongayi Chirisa), pirates, the Spanish coast guard. There is also a dog. (But, surprisingly, no monkey!)

Head writer Stephen Gallagher, who penned a couple of 1980s "Doctor Who" serials and created the original British "Eleventh Hour," starts with Crusoe already well at home on his uncharted desert isle. Before you can say "commercial break," he spots -- through his keen homemade telescope -- a boatload of pirates, who have come, as pirates do, to dig up buried treasure. They have a map, incompletely tattooed on an old man's back, and forcibly enlist Crusoe's help in deciphering it. Later the Spanish coast guard arrives, and things get more complicated.

Some of what happens happens just to make things colorful or keep them moving. It is best not to ask why the pirates did not just copy down the map onto a piece of parchment rather than dragging the old man around like a wheezing atlas. And how much treasure did they expect to carry away in that little boat they arrived in, anyway? And where did Friday learn to speak 12 languages, and why was English the 12th? And how did he get to the bottom of that waterfall so fast?

But demanding absolute sense or ironclad consistency from a show like this is like wanting a butterfly to fly a straighter line, not only pointless but somehow unnatural. Produced for NBC by a consortium of British, Canadian and South African production companies, this is adventure stuff, not quite the stuff of big-budget Hollywood movies, but of a grandness rarely seen on television. It mostly wants you to say, "Gee!" or "Yikes!" (I would caution parents that there is death dealt, though mostly off-camera.)

Binding the improbabilities are some great character turns. South African actor Jonathan Pienaar is especially winning as the pirate chief Lynch, in the sort of good-humored performance that makes you hope they'll all end up friends at the end of the day. Georgina Rylance is a beautiful female pirate -- "pirate lass," I think is the technical term -- who flirts with Crusoe when not trying to run him through. Joaquim De Almeida is good too, as the captain of the coast guard. Gallagher is at his best writing for them.

The plot is . . . just a plot.

The action regularly flashes back to Olde England, "Lost"-style -- as if to relieve the eye from the otherwise ever-present green. Here we meet Sean Bean as Crusoe's father, Sam Neill as a rich family friend and Anna Walton as the wife he left behind him, and we'll eventually learn how he came to be cast away, and why he says his "children are in danger."

These scenes, overburdened with special effects (denoting the jagged course of "memory," perhaps) are, so far, the least successful.

Take me back to the treehouse, says I.




Where: NBC

When: 8 tonight

Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence.)

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