TV Rewind: We Weren’t Ready for the Greatness of ABC’s Musical Fairytale GalavantPhoto Courtesy of ABC TV Features Galavant
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If you completely missed the proverbial boat on ABC’s 2015 musical comedy Galavant, well, just trust that you weren’t the only one. A half-hour series that, on paper, essentially sounds like a drug-induced hallucination, this medieval-set fever dream featured everything from horny knights and tiny lizards who might be dragons to musical interludes that mercilessly skewered both its own premise and the Disney Princess Industrial Complex, and it all aired on a network the Mouse itself owned. While the sheer audacity of this thing was truly unmatched, it’s easy to see how the show might have struggled to find an audience.
Galavant followed the story of the titular hero of the same name (played by a very charming Joshua Sasse). A brave and dashing knight, Galavant begins the series on a quest to rescue his beloved Madelena (Mallory Jansen) from the clutches of the evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson), who has kidnapped her. It all feels very cliche and fairly predictable, a sort of wannabe The Princess Bride only with more snark and an actual, open acknowledgment of sex. Until, that is, the series blows its entire premise up within its very first episode, revealing that Madalena doesn’t particularly need saving, having decided being a rich queen is probably a lot more fun than returning to a life of grinding poverty and having a baby every other year. (Or “getting fat and growing my own food,” as she puts it.)
From that point, all bets are off. What follows is a wildly unpredictable mix of new quests, hilarious guest stars (Kylie Minogue’s turn as the proprietress of a woodland gay bar called The Enchanted Forest is a particular treat), and musical numbers that range from “passably clever” to “relentless earworm,” as Galavant tries to figure out what’s next for him and the series slowly transforms this motley crew of characters from trope-y caricatures into real, three-dimensional people.
Though Richard is initially positioned as the series’ antagonist, it turns out that all his awkward bluster masks a charming heart of gold. Former damsel in distress Madalena blossoms into a (surprisingly complex) evil queen as Galavant forges a new relationship with the feisty princess Isabella (Karen David), all while his young squire Sid (Luke Youngblood) becomes a hero in his own right. Even Richard’s violent former bodyguard Gareth (Vinnie Jones) manages to find love for the first time, with a fairly unexpected partner. As it continued, genuinely touching moments arose in the most ridiculous of ways (I too believe in Tad Cooper) and the show regularly broke the fourth wall to make sure its audience was fully in on all the jokes.
If you’re wondering how Galavant ever even managed to get made in the first place, I have no answers for you, because this is precisely the sort of show that mainstream television networks rarely if ever greenlight, let alone allow to exist for two entire seasons. A weird, charming mash-up of fantasy tropes and musical theater Easter eggs (a Season 2 number blatantly rips off Les Misérables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing?” with hilarious results), Galavant was a show as willing to confront the socio-economic issues both genres often ignore as it was to deconstruct the entire concept of the fairytale romance. There was certainly nothing else like it on the air at the time, and there’s been little since that can match its unique combination of heartfelt emotion and sly irreverence. (Though I’d argue that Apple TV+’s genre-bending Dickinson comes close.)
In pop culture, as is true so often in life, it’s surprisingly difficult to go first, to be the one that pushes boundaries or breaks established norms. And while it’s not all that uncommon to see television series incorporate singing, dancing, or complex group musical numbers nowadays, that certainly wasn’t the case even just a few short years ago. (Particularly when the meteoric rise—and subsequent flaming dumpster fire death spiral—of the FOX drama Glee was so fresh in everyone’s memories. Cautionary tales exist for a reason, after all.)
No one who wasn’t a television critic watched The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. (Sniff.) Everyone will tell you now how much they loved NBC’s bonkers Broadway drama Smash, but few people actually paid any attention to it when it was on the air. Shows like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Julie and the Phantoms, and Schmigadoon didn’t exist yet. And any show that featured one-off musical interludes tended to lean more toward a Very Special Episode vibe, rather than the over-the-top (and extremely promotable) ridiculousness that ensues now when the kids from Riverdale perform Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Carrie.
Pop culture’s entire attitude toward this kind of content has dramatically shifted in an extremely short time frame, thanks in part to the rise of streaming services looking for precisely this sort of buzzy, offbeat content capable of breaking through a crowded media landscape. And while this sea change is entirely welcome, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been had Galavant premiered just a few years later. Granted, it still probably never would have been a major hit; Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was one of the best shows I watched this year and NBC still canceled it anyway. Heck, even Galavant itself was painfully self-aware about the long odds its very existence faced: Its Season 2 premiere, after all, was titled “A New Season (Suck It, Cancellation Bear).” But it’s still nice to dream.
For whatever reason, in the world of so-called Prestige TV, there’s this bizarre insistence that whatever we’re watching must have some sort of deeper meaning or be fully serious 100% of the time. It’s rare to find a program that is simply content to be fun, focused on providing joy and laughter rather than making a thesis statement about the human condition. Galavant was that show, and perhaps that’s the most fantastical thing about its existence—that we got the chance to watch it at all.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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