There are two ways to do a musical series on television.
One is to set the musical aspect in a world where characters have a legitimate reason to spontaneously break into song. Shows like The Partridge Family, Fame, Glee, and Smash all took advantage of that trope, having their characters perform at any and every opportunity.
The other option is to have perfectly realistic settings, where you wouldn't expect anyone to suddenly commence crooning — only to have them do it, anyway. It's the ancient performance technique Broadway musicals have employed for years. After all, alley cats, homicidal English barbers, revolutionary French peasants, and your average historical figure, Ragtime-era or not, don't, as a rule, go around warbling their innermost fears, thoughts and feelings. It's a stylistic narrative choice.
Television shows that have chosen to follow the latter, more complicated path through the years have included Rags to Riches, Viva Laughlin, and, of course, that ultimate punchline, Cop Rock. (We're not counting special, one-off, fantasy musical episodes of otherwise non-musical programs, like Chicago Hope, Oz, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, That 70s Show, Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, etc...)
There's probably a reason why all of the shows in the first category managed to eke out more than a single season. And the ones in the second category... didn't. (Technically, Rags to Riches was on the air for two years, but their first was a truncated, eight episode run, and the second was axed after twelve airings.)
That reason most likely has to do with a manageable suspension of disbelief. It's one thing to accept uncharacteristic singing coming from the stage, where everything is already artificial, non-realistic, and heightened. It's quite another to be watching a television episode that looks and feels exactly like Hill Street Blues (another Steve Bochco creation) only to suddenly see the hard-core cops and robbers start rapping or, even more disconcerting, belting out a heartfelt ballad.
ABC's latest attempt to bring musical theater to America's living rooms is Galavant, which premiered this past Sunday night. Galavant takes place in the 13th Century, where a dearth of performing arts high-schools, glee clubs, and New York theater scenes (heck, there was barely an Old York scene, then) reportedly prevented people from launching into show tunes at the drop of a hat. Nevertheless, in this telling, a character has barely had a thought before he or she is singing about it, often with the entire village or castle-staff chiming in to provide harmony.
If historians are to be believed, this is not particularly realistic. On the other hand, it is easier to accept than the operatic officers of Cop Rock. The show itself is already so stylized, with armor-clad knights who speak modern English, damsels undamaged by pox marks (or the sheer brutality of life in a pre-technological era, especially for women), and a wise-cracking black squire (yes, an African skeleton was recently found in Ipswich dating from that period, but the fact that it took over 150 years to locate a single one suggests Africans weren't exactly prolific in that time and place, and that squire was probably not an available career choice). Under such irreverent circumstances, it becomes easier to figure, "And they all sing, too? Sure. Why not?" This is musical comedy, first and foremost.
Galavant features lyrics by Glenn Slater (Tangled) and music by Alan Menken (most Disney musicals you can think of; this is an ABC production, after all). Of the two, half-hour episodes that have aired so far, the songs have been pretty rhythmically similar, with patter that reaches for cleverness and sometimes achieves it, but mostly lands in the solidly adequate department. Nothing too cringe-worthy. Though Stephen Sondheim and Into the Woods, this isn't.
The plot concerns a previously daring, noble and heroic knight who went to seed after the love of his life dumped him for the (according to story) not-butch-enough King Richard (I find him perfectly delightful). When a damsel (with an agenda I won't spoil for you) comes to Galavant, asking for help in rescuing her parents and kingdom from the very same Richard, Galavant reluctantly agrees to get back into shape and go on a quest to help both her, and, along the way, himself. (It's interesting that the show chose to make Richard the bad guy. In Robin Hood lore, and much of the period fiction that stemmed from it, it's Prince John who is terrorizing the local populace, and Richard whose seen as the savior. Of course, the reason Richard is absent for years at a time is because he's busy raping, pillaging, and genocide-ing his way through a Holy Land crusade. Swashbuckle writers tend to politely overlook that part.)
The jokes in Galavant range from the juvenile (think Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights), to vaguely suggestive (think Spamalot), to a periodic burst of subversive wit (think The Princess Bride) to gross-out humor (aaaand we're back to Mel Brooks again). Really young kids probably won't notice anything beyond the broad physical humor. Older ones will snicker and feel good about having gotten the joke.
The most important thing to know about Galavant, however, is that it's plain, old, silly fun. And there just isn't enough of that on TV these days. The show probably could have managed without the music, but it's the musical element that drew me to it, and it's what's likely to keep me watching for the duration of Galavant's four week run.
Gosh, darn it, I like shows where characters burst into song. I love the heightened drama, and the sense that you're hearing an emotion that can't be expressed in mere words. I like the dancing, too. And I'm not going to apologize for it. (True confessions: I still have select Cop Rock numbers recorded. On VHS tape, no less.)
Galavant premiered to decent ratings, ranking as the third-highest comedy series debut this season, and beating the time-slot's regular resident, Once, by 17%. Viewership did drop for the second half-hour, which is a shame, because it meant missing what I thought was the best ditty of the hour, "Maybe You're Not The Worst Thing Ever." (It prompted my husband to laugh hysterically, as he finds me terribly unromantic and figures that's about as far as I'd go, too.)
Galavant shares this song with the woman accompanying him on his journey, while King Richard duets with Galavant's lost love. All four have realized that maybe the person they're with isn't the worst thing ever.
Neither is this show.
(And, for the record, neither was Cop Rock.)
- Alina Adams
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