Galavant Aspires To Great Things But Does Not Achieve

Swashbuckling adventure stories lend themselves well to self-parody, perhaps better than any other genre. It probably has to do with the genre already being rather comedy-heavy and light-hearted to begin […]

Swashbuckling adventure stories lend themselves well to self-parody, perhaps better than any other genre. It probably has to do with the genre already being rather comedy-heavy and light-hearted to begin with, but movies like The Princess Bride, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and of course Monty Python and The Holy Grail have been cult classics due to how they play with the formula, the latter going into outright absurdity. Galavant is the newest attempt to join that list with one added twist. It’s also a musical with new songs in every episode. Such an ambitious idea alone is worth taking note for the month it takes up Once Upon A Time’s time slot.

The story opens with a song about our hero Galavant (Joshua Sasse) and how he’s gone off to rescue his one true love Madalena (Mallory Jansen) from the clutches of the evil King Richard. (Timothy Omundson) Unfortunately, when he comes to interrupt the wedding, he’s found that Madalena actually rather likes the comfort and privilege of being a queen. A depressed Galavant leaves the castle and proceeds to drink himself into a blind stupor. Two years later, he’s approached by Princess Isabella (Karen David) who needs her help to save her kingdom. With his squire Sid (Luke Youngblood) with them, they head off to adventure and hijinks.

The set-up is a clever infusion of reality into the things we always expect of heroic stories. The damsel-in-distress is supposed to choose the brave hero rather than the evil king, but why wouldn’t she like the life of luxury better? The subversion of a sissy king has been done to the point it’s a cliché in and of itself but Omundson actually manages to infuse the King with a level of self-awareness and self-loathing. ‘I’m such a bully.’ he says after he learns he’s murdered the chef’s family for having his food overcooked. King Richard’s poor attempts at becoming less of a tyrant only to fail miserably are the high points of the show, and it’s genuinely intriguing as to whether the show will have him become a better ruler or if he’s just completely incapable of any acts of genuine kindness. Mallory Jansen seems to be enjoying herself quite a bit, playing a cross between Trixie from the Honeymooners and Cersei Lannister from Game Of Thrones and her resemblance to Lena Headey no doubt helped her get the role.

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The heroes are decent enough, though they don’t have quite the same level of parody that our villains do. It’s clear that the heroes’ role in the story is to react and learn lessons rather than to instigate the conflict of the week itself. Sasse does well as a reluctant hero that needs the self-awareness kicked into him by his compatriots. He pulls off the charming rogue-to-become-hero but his character’s arc could be mapped out within seconds by any viewer. His entire role is defined by regaining heroism and learning about how he treats others. Isabella herself is standard, the frustrated woman with a growing attachment to the hero as he learns to be what he is. Sid seems to be defined entirely by his role as the Squire. This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. Part of self-parody is still succeeding at being the thing you’re parodying. Fortunately the material they’re given and their actors are strong enough to carry them.

Sadly for every inspired moment there’s a sitcom shenanigan or a lazy reference. There will be times when the show relies on a reference such as a a signpost that includes directions to Winterfell or just a deliberate anachronism, such as when Isabella gives ‘day-umn’ to seeing Galavant shirtless. The references can be rather dated too. As much I laughed at a Lilith Fair reference (Just off the isle of Lesbos!) I can’t help but wonder who on the staff was waiting sixteen years to make that joke. The show can also rely too much on tired sitcom cliches as well, such as the episode ‘Two Balls’ where they go to Sid’s hometown to find he’s exaggerated his accomplishments and Galavant has to pose as his squire to maintain the lie. It’s also accompanied by a load of tired Jewish stereotypes. It might have been clever if they had actually tried to invoke some medieval twist on the idea of Jewish stereotypes but instead we just get a pretty basic riff on Fiddler On The Roof.

The common problem with the jokes in the show is that I keep thinking ‘this could have been funnier if it felt more medieval’. The second episode features a training montage with an Eye-Of-The-Tiger-esque song playing while it happens. It falls flat because it’s just your standard eighties power chord song parodying something that doesn’t actually happen in swashbuckler stories, which destroyed my immersion. This scene could have worked if they had tried to put a more medieval spin on it by giving it a lute solo instead of the standard power chords or even if they had done the song in the style of metal bands that try to invoke a medieval feeling like Blind Guardian or Falconer. It seems to have just been thrown in because they needed another song for the episode. Anachronisms can be amusing if there’s a comedic logic in it. The rapping bards in Men in Tights come to mind. The main difference is that the rap ends in a shanty that highlights the absurdity of the anachronism. That kind of payoff doesn’t occur with the anachronistic jokes you get in Galavant. If they could go the extra mile to show why the idea is funny rather than just expressing an idea and asking us to make the association ourselves it could result in some great gags.

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Fortunately the music in the show is routinely great and almost the entire cast has great singing voices with the worst singers being serviceable. The main cast has range and the opening song telling us the tale of Galavant is catchy. Some other favorites of mine were ‘Comedy Gold’ which has Steve the Jester singing in a way that calls back to ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ in the classic musical Singin’ In The Rain without feeling like it’s just ripping it off. There’s also a pretty full variety of songs. Composer Alan Menken -best known for his work on Tangled – is clearly using this to showcase his love for musical theater in all its forms. While I’ve complained about the eighties training song and the Fiddler On The Roof parody, the diversity in song types makes each one stand out. Much like Tangled, it shows his ability to meld catchy tunes, plot progression, and character development with memorable lyrics. ‘Jackass in A Can’ is a highpoint that manages to both be catchy and effectively display character development on Galavant’s part. For many the novelty of having new songs every week will be enough to keep them watching, so it helps that the songs are actually enjoyable.

Galavant gets better with each installment, but one can only hope it gains its footing before its season ends, especially since I’m not sure if our heroes will be coming back for a second season after Once Upon A Time decides to return. With some work it can be the gallivant it promises to be rather than the dalliance it is.