If you haven’t been watching Galavant, well you’re too late now. Its season, and probably series, finale aired this past Sunday, and I’m sad to see it go. A half-hour medieval musical comedy series was never going to have mass appeal, but it was just the sort of thing I was looking for, and it rapidly became one of my favorite shows on TV. The idea of legendary songwriter Alan Menken doing a musical TV show was enough to pique my interest, but I quickly discovered last season that Galavant was more than just great songs from the Disney vet. It stylistically combined Disney musicals with Monty Python (specifically Spamalot), The Princess Bride, and Mel Brooks movies to create one of the funniest shows out there, but as the presumed series finale approached I wasn’t prepared for just how emotional the show could be, without losing its humor, nor how attached I’d become to these characters. Add in the fact that Galavant was perhaps the most self-aware and self-depreciating show in history and you’ve got a recipe for something unique. If this really is the end, and I hope it isn’t, I’m at least happy that Galavant existed and even got unexpected second season, and I hope more people will discover it as the years go by.
It all starts with the music. Alan Menken is a legend and a genius, the man behind the music for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Enchanted, Tangled, and Newsies is the perfect person to bring a musical to the small screen, and I honestly would not have watched if he hadn’t been involved. Few people understand musical storytelling the way Menken does, but he did more than simply crafting a medieval musical because Galavant is in fact a parody of many of the musical tropes that Menken helped create. All of the standard songs you expect from a Menken musical are there, love ballads, rousing group numbers, etc., but lyrically they’ve all been turned on their head. Glenn Slater, his lyricist, crafted some hilarious numbers, so that a romantic melody becomes a song about how “Maybe you’re not the worst thing ever,” or has lyrics like “Love is rude, it has a sort of smell/And it thinks that you don’t notice/And it blurts out things that make you want to smack its stupid face.” Every song plays on your expectations, so a pirate sea shanty is actually about the things they do on the land (“We’ve also taken up gardening/Sustainably of course… And on the side we sell a line of homemade organic deserts”), or a number reminiscing on a first kiss forces the characters to admit the kiss was awful (“Slightly yeasty/Oddly musty”), or three way tune about how well they work as a team ends up with them ready to kill each other in the end (“Each day together’s/A chore together/A belching, nagging bore together”), and even an obvious reference to “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid which has Galavant delivering romantic advice along the lines of “Don’t ever mention you’ve never had sex/Trust me, I promise, she knows”. The music often parodies Menken’s own work for Disney, but it also hits many other musicals. A battle between Dwarves and Giants turns into a West Side Story homage, complete with snapping and whistling, while a rousing battle number clearly parodies Les Miserables, and still other songs bring to mind shows like Rent or Mary Poppins or even pop music like the Beatles or Herman’s Hermits.
One aspect of Galavant I didn’t appreciate until season two was the cleverness of the writing outside of the musical numbers. Creator Dan Fogelman crafted a show that, much like its music, plays with your expectations. It’s a period piece but is full of pop culture references (one guest star’s character is named “Jean Hamm”) and modern humor. The characters are never what you expect, and by the end of season two they had all gone through a variety of transformations. The two damsels in distress became powerful leaders, one for good one for evil, the villainous king became a bumbling sidekick and then an unlikely hero. The massive, dimwitted henchman usurped the throne and then romanced the hero’s ex, while the titular hero was revealed to be a clueless jerk before being given a chance at redemption. The writing is often wickedly clever in addition to its humor, crafting unexpected plot twists or unique situations. In the show’s first episode Galavant rides to rescue his girlfriend Madalena, who was kidnapped by king Richard, only to arrive and discover that she’d actually rather stay with the king due to his wealth and power, sending him on a mead-fueled spiral into becoming a slob. One of my favorite offbeat moments happened in season two, when several characters met in the Forest of Coincidence, where the overall plot was advanced quicker and easier than it had any right to be, all while poking fun at the necessary and forced coincidences that drive most stories. It’s the mark of a good show that I want to go back and rewatch season one to see what sorts of things I missed by focusing too much on the music.
The show is anchored by an extremely talented cast of familiar faces and general unknowns, who did as much of the singing as possible live on set in the style of Les Miserables, bringing an energy and even a feeling of spontaneity to the show. Everyone in the cast has gotten a moment to shine, both musically and within the story, and they all have impressing and occasionally surprising vocal and comedic talent. The highlight of the series has to be Timothy Omundson as Richard, a villainous king turned bumbling sidekick turned unlikely hero. Omundson makes Richard hilariously inept by also sweet and lonely, and is able to bring a lot of heart to a role that would otherwise have been just straight comedy. He also has a surprisingly lovely voice, and really knows how to sell a song. My other personal favorite is Luke Youngblood as the constantly put-upon sidekick Sid, who can’t hide either his enthusiasm or his frustration at the often ridiculous characters he has to serve, but the rest of the cast is equally entertaining. Joshua Sasse makes Galavant both an over-the-top stereotype of a hero while also completely clueless and ineffectual, former soccer player Vinnie Jones is constantly hilarious as violent henchman Gareth, Mallory Jansen is ruthless as villainous Madalena who can’t understand the romantic feelings she starts to develop, while Karen David’s Princess Isabella laments the conflict between her feminist attitude and the plot tropes of the story. The show is also full of celebrity cameos, including John Stamos, Hugh Bonneville, Weird Al Yancovic, Ricky Gervais, Rutger Hauer, Kylie Minogue, and Nick Frost in a variety of roles.
While I enjoyed the first season, season two was leaps and bounds better and is what fully cemented my love for the show. After everyone predicted Galavant’s cancellation after just one season, its surprise renewal came with a healthy dose of confidence and swagger, and the series took on a surprisingly meta aspect for its second time around, going out of its way to play to the fans who helped it return. The first episode of season two was called “A New Season aka Suck It Cancellation Bear”, and opened with a song fittingly titled “A New Season” which set the tone for the rest of the episodes. In the course of five minutes the opening managed to mock the previous season’s overused theme song (“We’re gonna have to kill ya if you sing the freaking song”), point out the travesty that Menken wasn’t able to finally complete his EGOT (“It didn’t win an Emmy now it’s time to move along”), remind everyone of the plot and reintroduce the characters, pick a fight with Galavant’s Sunday night competition (“So in the weeks to come ignore the pageants that they’ll hold/Skip the football matches and the Globes made out of Gold./Screw all those Apprentices and every Bachelorette/Give into the miracle that no one thought we’d get”), poke fun at themselves (“There’s still no reason why we burst into song”), and acknowledge the reality they’re facing (“You’ll know hell’s freezing if we get decent ratings” followed by “It’s a new season so hang onto your sword/A new season which you’ll probably record”). Season two was full of those moments, not merely breaking the fourth wall but offering commentary on the show’s predicament, development, and limitations. One recap song laments the rushed feeling of the half-hour sitcom format, another comments on how dark the story has gotten in season two, the penultimate episode ends with a character admitting in song that they won’t die because “there’s one more episode”, while others predict the career paths of the show’s cast and crew after its inevitable cancellation (“We’ll probably have to go and get work/On some cheap-ass cable network”). In fact all of season two felt like a love letter to fans, even outside of the show when music from each episode was released that night on iTunes and a complete soundtrack after the finale aired, in stark contrast to the partial highlights soundtrack available months after season one.
But what I was really unprepared for was how emotionally involved I would be in the characters and story in season two. I thought the first season was lots of fun, but I never really cared what happened until the surprising cliffhanger in the season one finale which completely reset and rearranged the story, combining the characters in new and unexpected ways and allowing season two to explore them more deeply. I found myself really wanting bumbling Richard to find redemption, become a hero, and fall in love with his childhood friend Roberta, I wanted Galavant to reunite with Isabella to liberate the kingdom, I even wanted villains Gareth and Madelena to admit their feelings for each other, while I hoped that Sid would finally find his place as an equal rather than a sidekick. It’s a mark of the quality of the writing, the music, and the performances that a show as silly as this can still make you care about what you’re watching rather than simply waiting for the next laugh. The show never lost its hilarious edge, and it found goofy ways to advance the character’s emotion, such as when Richard sings “Should I tell her I love her?/Oops, I think I just did”. Even something as silly as Richard’s lizard pet Tad Cooper which he insists is really a dragon became strangely affecting. The emotion seemed to be driven largely by Richard, whose earnestness and search for meaning and belong in his life anchored the story amidst the more ridiculous developments, but the connection quickly spread to the other characters and plotlines to the point where I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next week (a big jump from merely enjoying season one). So by the time the final episode rolled around, featuring clashing armies, dark magic, zombies, heartbreak, reunions, showdowns, and a magical sword, bringing all of the characters and stories together, I was 100% invested.
Galavant is a show of contradictions. It’s an old-fashioned musical along with a modern parody, it’s at times goofy and silly while at others emotional and engaging, it’s not above making poop or boob jokes yet it can also be clever and topical. And if it’s truly over for good then the TV landscape will be a little less bright in its absence. Oddly enough, season one was never released on Blu-Ray, so I expect/hope both seasons will be released together sometime soon, preferably with an expanded season one soundtrack which includes the numerous songs left off of the first one. Still, until then the show can be streamed in a variety of places or purchased digitally on Amazon. I know musicals aren’t particularly popular these days (and some people simply don’t understand them), a medieval comedy seems silly, and you’ve probably never heard of any of the show’s stars, but do yourself a favor sometime and check out Galavant. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s unlike anything else on TV these days. And who knows, maybe one more surprise renewal is still in the cards.