NBC's "Crusoe" begins with a shipwreck, appropriate for a series that's a bit of a wreck itself.
A retelling of Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," this new series launches with a bloated two-hour movie that introduces Crusoe (Philip Winchester, "Flyboys") as a tropical island "MacGyver" who builds booby traps and contraptions. (His treehouse is a marvel.)
Pirates come to Crusoe's island, and they're picked off one by one in death scenes that are played for laughs, "Pirates of the Caribbean"-style.
"Crusoe" (8 tonight, WPXI), set in the Caribbean in the 1680s, introduces the title character's island buddy, Friday (Tongayi Chirisa), whose depiction is no longer that of the "savage" from Defoe's novel. The show takes great pains to make clear that Friday acts of his own free will and, in his own words, "I am not your slave."
Flashbacks explain how Friday came to be Crusoe's friend and why Crusoe wants to get back to England: His wife (Anna Walton) and mentor, Jeremiah Blackthorn (Sam Neill, "The Tudors"), who comes across as vaguely sinister. Viewers also see Crusoe grieving for his mother, who died when he was a boy. This death is not played for laughs.
And there's the immediate problem with "Crusoe": The tone varies wildly from action-adventure to serious costume drama.
It's also easy to see a long-term problem on the horizon: How do you turn this story into a weekly series? Will new marauders pop up on Crusoe's island every week? If so, how realistic is it if Crusoe never manages to escape in their boats? And yet, he can't get off the island, because if he does, the series is over.
In a recent teleconference with reporters, "Crusoe" executive producer Jeff Hayes ("The Lost World") tried to dismiss the notion that the series will bear any similarity to "Gilligan's Island" despite promises of many island visitors, including more pirates, mutineers and cannibals. Even Blackthorn visits the island for the last two episodes of the season.
"The mutineers, for instance, stay on the island because their ship is actually wrecked on the reef. While they repair it, they're there for an arc of about four or five episodes and we draw on them for stories as we go through that arc," Hayes said.
At least four episodes in the first season will focus solely on Crusoe and Friday.
"There are a number of things to explore between Friday and Crusoe as characters without people being injected into the island life," Hayes said. And, like "Lost," it's possible that others live elsewhere on the island. "You never know. It's a pretty big island."
Channel 11 has been fined $10,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for running too many commercials during children's programs in violation of FCC limits. WPXI volunteered the information as part of its application for license renewal, which is expected to go through regardless.
There were issues on WPXI and on digital subchannel RTN, which is fed to the station via satellite. Program director Mark Barash said he didn't think the station would have been fined for the WPXI mistake if the RTN mistake hadn't happened.
On WPXI in 2002 or 2003, Channel 11 aired NBC's children's shows out of order. Unbeknownst to WPXI, the commercial load was properly balanced when the shows aired in order but not out of order. On 12 occasions, WPXI exceeded the allowed commercial time in an hour by between five and 15 seconds.
RTN fed the station a children's show, "Hip Hop Harry," which also contained too many ads.
"I think the two things together is really what caused the fine," Barash said, adding he doesn't expect the station to appeal the fine.
Mike Pintek continues as a substitute host on "NightTalk," almost two years after the departure of Ann Devlin, and there are no immediate plans to name a permanent replacement, PCNC station manager Barash said.
Chris Moore continues to substitute host on Fred Honsberger's PCNC program, and Barash said he does not expect Honsberger, who has suffered from assorted health issues, to return. Barash said he's working on naming a replacement, and, presumably, retitling the show. "We should have some announcement in the coming few weeks."
Today's Tuned In Journal features an interview with Pittsburgh native Vivienne Radkoff, who wrote tomorrow night's Lifetime movie "Living Proof," a biopic about Dr. Dennis Slamon (Harry Connick Jr.), the doctor who helped develop the breast cancer drug Herceptin. Read the interview at post-gazette.com/tv.
In this week's Tuned In Podcast, PG entertainment editor Sharon Eberson and I discuss the debut broadcast of ABC's "Life on Mars," the season premiere of "Eli Stone" and the new Starz series "Crash," based on the Oscar-winning movie. Listen (or subscribe) at post-gazette.com/podcast.