Review: ABC's 'Galavant' has catchy songs, off-key comedy
A couple of seasons ago, ABC debuted a show called "The Neighbors" where the pilot seemed less like a sitcom than a practical joke ABC boss Paul Lee was perpetrating on TV critics and the audience at large: We're ABC, and we can schedule anything we want after "Modern Family"(*) and have it do okay! Even a sitcom about aliens named after famous athletes!
(*) Technically, "The Neighbors" only aired a couple of times after "Modern Family," as Lee blinked at the last minute and slid it to Wednesdays at 8:30, then moved it to Fridays for its second and final season.
But "The Neighbors" turned out to be a fine example of the phenomenon where a bad pilot can lead to a good show, as I discovered later in that season when the series did a musical episode called "Sing Like a Larry Bird." The collaboration between "Neighbors" creator Dan Fogelman, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater was a treat, and even the non-musical parts of the episode made clear that "The Neighbors" had improved drastically from its first episode, getting both smarter and sillier as it went along. Unfortunately, that first impression stuck, and few people watched the better later episodes (including another musical outing, with some Bollywood tributes), and "The Neighbors" simply became another example of ABC failing whenever it strays away from straightforward family comedies like "Modern Family," "The Middle" and, now, "The Goldbergs."
When I heard that Fogelman, Menken and Slater were reuniting for a new musical fairy tale comedy called "Galavant," I was intrigued. The idea seemed to play to the strengths of the trio, who had previously collaborated on "Tangled," and the trailer at the upfronts suggested something like that "Princess Bride" musical that gets rumored every couple of years.
I've seen six of the eight episodes — which ABC, realizing the show isn't a good match for anything on its schedule, will air-back-to-back on Sundays at 8 & 8:30 throughout this month — and unfortunately, the whole is less than the sum of its comic and musical parts.
Joshua Sasse plays the title character, a once-dashing knight fallen on hard times after his beloved Madalena (Mallory Jensen) is abducted by evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson) and his henchman Gareth (Vinnie Jones) — and, worse, decides she prefers life with the gross but powerful monarch to what she had with the gorgeous but impoverished hero. Perpetually drunk on mead and self-pity, he has only faithful squire Sid (Luke Youngblood) for company until Isabella (Karen David), princess from a land invaded by King Richard, begs for his help.
Not a bad set-up, even if it means we only get the briefest glimpse of Galavant at his best before he turns into this obnoxious lush. And the songs by Menken and Slater seem catchy, albeit full of ribaldry. (The introductory song rhymes a line about Madalena being a perfect maiden with "cleavage you could hold a whole parade in.") But part of their catchiness comes through mere repetition; the pilot, for instance, only has two songs, but the first one is reprised so often that it will get stuck in your head for at least a few hours.
The problems come more on the comedy end, though, where I'd happily watch a series focusing on Omundson, Jones and Youngblood (Magnitude from "Community"), but quickly grew tired of everything and everyone else. Omundson in particular is having the time of his life as the cruel but ineffectual king, oblivious to how much Madalena despises him and how little anyone would fear him without Gareth standing to his right. (If that "Princess Bride" musical ever does get made, I'd love to see him as either Humperdinck or Count Rugen.)
It helps that King Richard exists largely separate from the show's primary source of humor: "Shrek"-style jokes where pop culture references and other aspects of modern life somehow turn up in medieval times. So when John Stamos pops up in Sunday's second episode as Galavant's longtime rival, he's of course named Sir Jean Hamm, pronounced just like the "Mad Men" actor. And when "Downton Abbey" star Hugh Bonneville appears later in the season as a pirate captain, he tells Galavant, "We met before, at Lilith Fair. The Isle of Lesbos!"
I have no problem with that kind of joke as an accent (who is Miracle Max if not a Jewish vaudevillian who traveled back in time to treat Westley?), but it's the main source of humor for "Galavant," and it grew tiresome quickly.
There are enough solid pieces here — primarily Omundson and the songs (which I enjoyed as I watched, even if I couldn't hum a bar of them a week later) — that I would hope "Galavant" could, like "The Neighbors," figure itself out in time. But with such a brief first season, and one seemingly set up to fail with its scheduling, it's hard to imagine Fogelman and company getting to make enough episodes to work out the kinks.
As often happens with unsuccessful shows, "The Neighbors" isn't even mentioned in Fogelman's official bio for "Galvant." When he makes his next show, will "Galavant" be omitted, too?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org