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Galavant was the decade’s most underrated show that no one watched

2019 is coming to a close, and with it comes the end of the decade. Prestige TV has never been better. Marvel turned on-screen superheroes into the biggest (and most profitable) trend of the era. Streaming is the new battlefield for viewer eyeballs. To close out the 20-teens, Verge staffers break down their favorite moments, media, and what they believe was the most overlooked in entertainment from the last 10 years.

Way back in days of old / there was a legend told / about a hero known as Galavant…

So begins the tale of Galavant, a short-lived ABC TV series that ran in 2015 and (somehow) returned for an even longer second season the following year.

On the surface, it’s a generic send-off of the fantasy genre that plays like a watered down version of The Princess Bride (with a little less heart and a little more snark). But Galavant has a trick up its sleeve — it’s also a musical, a song-and-dance affair like a live-action Disney movie of old. Exactly like a Disney movie, in fact, given that the songs were all written by the legendary Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Enchanted, Tangled) and co-collaborator Glenn Slater.

The show starts by setting up a classic fairy-tale story in its impossibly earworm-y opening number — Galavant is a gallant knight, riding to save his beloved Madalena from the clutches wicked King Richard — and then promptly blows the entire premise to bits.

What follows are a few hours of fantasy-fueled musical comedy. There are jousts. There are sword fights. There are a variety of guest cameos. And of course, there are lot of enjoyable tunes, which range from clever to impossible to get out of your head.

The cast is great, too: Joshua Sasse plays the titular hero, given equal opportunities to flex his golden pipes and biceps; Karen David is the iron-willed Princess Isabella, and Mallory Jansen is Galavant’s trope-dodging lost love Madalena. But the standout is Timothy Omundson’s King Richard, the initial antagonist who steals the show as a blustering, bumbling dictator with a heart of gold (and a truly magnificent beard). It helps that nearly all of the main cast can actually sing well, which means that there’s less of the awkwardness and auto-tuning typical of a Very Special Musical Episode from most shows.

It’s not deep, but it’s deeply fun, especially if you (like me) particularly enjoy Disney renaissance movies and stage musicals. Thanks to its very unpopular nature, Galavant is also extremely short, the kind of thing you can easily binge on a weekend when it’s too cold to go outside. To say that almost no one watched the first season of the show is an understatement — it was one of ABC’s worst shows that year — and despite a cliffhanger ending, it seemed like Galavant was doomed to be nothing more than an easily missed blip on ABC’s schedule.

Except, for some reason, it wasn’t. ABC gave the show a “miracle” renewal for a second season, and Galavant delivered one of the most satisfying sequels of the decade. Season 2 takes everything further: more songs, more episodes, more off-kilter fairy-tale wackiness. The first episode, titled “A New Season … aka Suck It Cancellation Bear” (a reference to TV By The Numbers’ Renew / Cancel column) starts with a song that sees the cast literally crowing about dodging the axe and features a shameless appeal to viewers to watch Galavant instead of football, the Golden Globes, or The Bachelorette. The second season also adds more fantasy elements and specific parodies of stage musicals (including West Side Story and Les Misérables), as icing on the cake.

ABC also took a page out the book of the far more popular Glee, releasing songs individually on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube in the hopes that social media buzz might help lead to more success for the series. It also means that all the music is available to listen to, which you will mostly likely want to do after watching Galavant.

That the show even got renewed at all is a wild story. Galavant was announced as part of ABC’s lineup in 2014, before being consigned to the mid-season break as filler for Once Upon a Time’s Sunday night slot. (ABC had so little faith in the series that the eight-episode season was actually condensed into four weeks, with two episodes airing each Sunday). As expected, ratings were dismal, with the adorable musical comedy series being utterly crushed by ABC’s generally poor viewership, playoff football games, and award shows like the Golden Globes. A cancellation was all but guaranteed — except that Galavant was a favorite of then-ABC president Paul Lee, who ordered a second season against all odds (and against all common sense, if we’re being totally honest).

Galavant’s renewal — along with another season for the also poorly performing Marvel spinoff Agent Carter — was part of Lee’s strategy to create “sticky” content that bet more on building brands with long-term cultural staying power over immediate rating success. This bet would spectacularly fail — as Vulture recounts, both Galavant and Agent Carter swiftly returned to lose half of their already poor audiences, and Lee was soon ousted and replaced by Channing Dungey.

Lee’s ideas (and Galavant) might have just been a little ahead of its time; today’s streaming era puts a far bigger emphasis on word-of-mouth success and cultural mindshare than it does hard numbers about who’s watching. It’s easy to imagine a world where Galavant was released as a streaming exclusive on something like Disney+ or Netflix, where its niche appeal could better shine outside of the harsh landscape of traditional network television.

In the golden age of television the last decade has given us, it’s hard to say that Galavant is a great show. It doesn’t tackle big issues like His Dark Materials or American Gods and lacks the epic scope of stories like Game of Thrones or Outlander, shows that will no doubt show up on various end-of-decade lists as proof that the fantasy genre could be elevated to prestige television levels.

Galavant isn’t that. It never tried to be, offering a lighter dose of entertainment that still leaves me smiling after all these years.

And if nothing else, the theme song really is that good.

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