Tuesday, January 20, 2015

‘Galavant’ and the Age of Chivalry

If you haven’t been watching ABC’s new medieval musical comedy series Galavant, then you’re missing what The Wall Street Journal calls “one of the oddest network shows, comedy or otherwise, in some time.” But there’s more to Galavant than just campy, boisterous fun.

The four-weekend show, which airs back-to-back half-hour episodes on Sunday nights, centers on our hero Galavant and his quest to rescue his fair Madalena from the king who stole her away. Galavant, played by Joshua Sasse with just the right amount of self-mocking, is a dashing but washed-up Lancelot with – as the theme song says – “square jaw and perfect hair/cojones out to there.” As for his lady love: we are told with a hint of Chaucerian bawdiness that “he loved her to excess, thrice daily more or less.”

The show delights in turning fairy-tale clichés on their heads; for example, Madalena (Mallory Jansen) is no damsel in distress and in no rush to be rescued. Though she despises her husband King Richard (the show-stealing Timothy Omundson), she is in love with the wealth and power that accompany her crown – not to mention the fact that she’s having an affair with the court jester. Meanwhile Galavant is taken aback when a gang of singing squires reveals to him that, far from being an admired hero, a knightly prince like himself is considered “nothing but a jackass in a fancy metal can.”

Along the journey, Galavant encounters guest stars like John Stamos (who engages him in the funniest jousting scene in TV and movie history), Ricky Gervais as Xanax the wizard, and “Weird Al” Yankovich in a troupe of singing monks.

Galavant drew favorable reviews and strong ratings in its premiere, but it’s not for everyone. The comedy is unabashedly silly, the actors vamp it up – and then there are the musical numbers, which may put off some viewers. I myself am ordinarily no fan of musicals, but Galavant’s energetic musical numbers include the show’s cleverest lines. The series stems from the same writing and music team behind the animated movie Tangled, which my daughters have correctly judged has the best songs of any Disney princess film.

In a review sprinkled with adjectives like “zany” and “daffy,” the Wall Street Journal dubbed Galavant a rare thing: “a broadcast series that diverges from the sacred sitcom touchstones of work, relationships and family.” But the show is connecting with a different cultural touchstone: it reaches down a long tradition that includes The Princess Bride, Camelot and more, all the way back to the Arthurian tales told in medieval courts.

We are heirs of the Age of Chivalry. We continue to be emotionally compelled by the Middle Ages in a way that we aren’t by the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or any other period in Western history. Twelfth-century troubadours virtually invented our contemporary notions of romance. Twelfth-century knights virtually invented and codified the chivalrous behavior that may be under assault in our time, but which is still deeply ingrained in us. Time and again we return to the touchstones of medieval legend and history for epic tales of romance and heroism.

“Medieval” may be a synonym today for “barbaric” (hence Ving Rhames’ memorable line in Pulp Fiction: “I’m about to get medieval on your ass”), and the reality of it was indeed savagely violent. But the Middle Ages still wears a mythic luster of romance and gallantry for us, and at heart we yearn to reconnect with that, whether or not we are comfortable admitting it. We live in a jaded time, after all. We protect ourselves with the armor of snark and cynicism. We subvert that yearning through comedy, as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – or Galavant. But underneath that playfulness are echoes of an heroic age which still speak to us today.

(This article originally appeared here in Acculturated, 1/16/15)