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A show as weird as medieval musical Galavant shouldn't be as boring as it is

Galavant (Joshua Sasse) accepts the praise of the people, because his name is in the show's title.
Galavant (Joshua Sasse) accepts the praise of the people, because his name is in the show's title.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You might be tempted to check out Galavant, one of the first major TV debuts of the year, which first aired last night on ABC. It drew a respectable number in the ratings for that debut, though it will face stiff competition in weeks ahead.

As much as I'm loathe to tell you not to watch a farcical musical sitcom about a singing knight, however, you probably shouldn't. I've seen six of the eight episodes, and this show is a dud. The best thing about Galavant is that it exists. There has never been a TV show quite like this, and there probably won't be another. The worst thing is that it has no idea what to do with all of that creative freedom it's bought itself.

Let's break down some reasons why.

1) There's too much exposition

Galavant is the story of a knight who lost his sweetheart to the king, and joins with a handful of others on a quest to destroy the evil king. And they're going to sing about it. So far, so good.

The problem is that Galavant takes the entirety of its first episode (the first half of tonight's hour-long premiere) to set up this premise, which means there's essentially no forward momentum. There's just a lot of back-story, which is rarely as fun as questing.

When the show begins, Galavant doesn't really have a goal, per se, other than to fill in the audience on what's been happening. That's death to story, and it creates a pall that the other episodes can't completely get rid of. Indeed, every episode has to set everything aside for some huge moment of exposition or another, which rarely does anything to give the story a jolt.

Of course, most of that exposition is in song, so it should be more delightful than usual, right? Not really.

2) Galavant seems oddly embarrassed about being a musical

The big problem with TV musicals is that writing a handful of original songs on a weekly basis is murder for any composer. Glee got around that by using almost all covers and a tiny handful of originals (and even then not until its second season). Smash did it by using a mix of covers and originals. Yet even then, neither show was entirely successful.

In actuality, Galavant will run a little under 170 minutes, with eight episodes of 21 minutes apiece. That's the length of some of the longer stage shows on Broadway, so it's not as if writing enough original songs to fill that time is impossible. Plus, the show's composers are musical vets Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, who have written the tunes for any number of musical stage shows and films. (Menken, in particular, was responsible, with his former writing partner Howard Ashman, for some of the best songs of Disney's '80s and '90s films.)

Yet the songs in Galavant rarely act as anything other than placeholders. The numbers mostly recount information we already know. They don't keep the plot chugging along, nor do they move emotional arcs forward.

And worse, the numbers are indifferently staged, with little of the production number pizzazz that made the early Glee stand out. Shooting musical sequences is expensive, but Galavant seems to have blown most of its budget on filming in the United Kingdom.

3) Galavant himself is a snooze

As written by creator Dan Fogelman and played by Joshua Sasse, Galavant is a handsome dupe, a guy who's led around by his nose by the people around him. That might make a fine arc for a movie or stage musical, where Galavant would eventually realize how much he was being manipulated and stand up for what he wanted. But it's a lousy character to put at the center of an episodic TV show. Every episode only hammers home all the more that Galavant has no real agency of his own.

This means that by far the most interesting part of the show takes place at the court of King Richard. Played by Timothy Omundson, the king is a fun riff on the usual villainous tropes, and the others in his court are equally entertaining. Unlike Galavant, the king actually wants to do stuff, and Omundson is playing the character to the hilt. If this show were about King Richard, it would instantly be 10 times better.

4) The tone never varies

Fogelman's earlier series, The Neighbors, was a goofily satirical look at modern suburban society, through the lens of a bunch of aliens. Because that show was more or less grounded in a skewed version of our reality, Fogelman was able to branch out from the expected alien jokes to some solid satire, right alongside moments of genuine feeling.

Through six episodes, Galavant has yet to manage this trick. The tone never varies from the archly comic and farcical. That proves to be deadly to moments that hope to set up dramatic stakes, or even just create real bonds between the characters. Everything feels like a light and frothy joke, and, thus, everything becomes a light and frothy joke.

This also gives the show a feeling of being very, very impressed with itself that it never quite earns, which becomes more off-putting the longer things go on.

5) The show over-relies on wheezy humor based on stereotypes

The evil queen is a sex-crazed man-eater. A seemingly noble woman is actually a duplicitous double dealer (even if she sorta regrets it). A character makes a joke about wearing gang colors in a dungeon.

In and of themselves, any of these jokes could have worked if Galavant had a better sense of itself and what it wanted to be. And if the show were better, a clunky, potentially offensive joke would be easier to write off.

But because the show is bad as it is, it becomes all the easier to notice how often Galavant goes to these particular wells, sometimes in desperation, for its laughs. These jokes aren't funny ones. They're old, threadbare ones that Galavant does nothing to build upon. In fact, they might be Galavant in a nutshell: everything seems different, but this is the same old TV slop in a different suit of armor.

Update: This article has been updated to link to Galavant's strong premiere ratings.

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