ABC’s Galavant is the kind of show that thrills me in its gloriously misguided audacity: It’s a half-hour musical comedy set in a fairy-tale-style kingdom, with heaps of fourth-wall-breaking jokes, bouncy songs, and catchy lyrics. The show does what it does about as well as it can be done — it’s funny and a little naughty, and ironic enough that it might loop all the way back to being earnest. Terrific. And yet it’s more of an excellent specimen rather than an excellent TV show. It feels like a great recipe baked in the wrong-sized pan. Still good, but not its best self.
Galavant, which premieres Sunday at 8, owes a lot to Princess Bride, Men in Tights, Spamalot, Once Upon a Mattress, and Shrek. That’s pretty good company to keep, and in most ways, Galavant fits right in: We have our hero Galavant (Joshua Sasse), who’s a bit less heroic than he thinks; our damsel in distress Madalena (Mallory Jansen), who’s actually not in distress at all; and our bad-guy King Richard (Timothy Omundson), who’s more idiotic than evil. Galavant heads on his quest with Isabella (Karen David), another princess who is perhaps his truer love match, and Sid (Luke “Magnitude” Youngblood), his trusted squire. They meet a variety of townsfolk, there are jousting matches and creaky suits of armor, and the clamoring of metal cups in dingy ale houses. The trio brags about its own diversity, so fourth-wall-busting is Galavant.
And of course there are songs, and most of Galvant’s individual numbers are wonderful. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater aren’t screwing around, and lines that rhyme “adventure” with “real butt-clencher” set the bar high within the first few moments of the show. One of the characters is “the knight who put ‘sir’ in ‘circumcised,’” and there’s a falling-in-love song that gushes, “Maybe I shouldn’t quite say never / maybe you’re not the worst thing ever.” I hope and assume Menken and Slater will be nominated for an Emmy for these songs.
But what I wish was that they’d be nominated for an Oscar instead, because I wish Galavant were a movie. I found the show charming and festive and impressively committed, but in half-hour chunks, there’s very little room to build the kind of momentum the series needs. (ABC is airing the show in back-to-back installments on Sundays, less because that’s good for the show and more because the scheduling department at ABC is experiencing A Dark Time.) Parody tends to work better in either longer bits, like a feature-length movie, or in shorter bits, like a sketch or webisode, and Galavant’s runtime winds up emphasizing what it can’t do rather than what it’s doing so well. Galavant can’t build to huge, massive climaxes, nor can it let itself rest for a scene, because in only 22 minutes, there’s no time to waste. Generally in traditional musicals, characters burst into song because their feelings are simply too massive to be contained in prose; this is why there are so many parody musicals, because it allows for these hugely overindulged emotions. All the emotions in Galavant are already so intensely but uniformly heightened that one never has the sensation of urgency that would necessitate a song. This makes everything feel very samey-samey; in the six episodes I watched, there was no major moment or hugely explosive scene, and neither was there an opportunity to inject any kind of grounding humanity. Guest appearances from John Stamos, Weird Al, and Ricky Gervais wind up taking over episodes rather than feeling like the in-and-out cameos they should be. Galavant needs some room to breathe.
I admire Galavant’s gutsiness, and after slogging through so many cop shows and misery shows and kid-murder, rainstorm, sad-face miniseries, it’s a huge relief to watch something smart and silly and fun. “Not a failure” sounds like faint praise, but given how big a risk the show took by merely existing, it’s a shock to me that it works as well as it does. It just doesn’t work completely.