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Camelot in Crisis: An Advance Review of NBC's "Merlin"

I'll admit that I thought it odd that NBC would acquire period drama Merlin, which aired last year on BBC One in the UK, and slate it to air in primetime this summer.

After all, NBC isn't exactly known as a home for period drama, especially period fantasy drama, though given that Merlin is an acquired series, rather than a home-grown one, one can make a case that it's cost-effective programming in a notoriously difficult time of the year.

Still, I had the opportunity a few weeks back to watch Merlin's first two episodes ("The Dragon's Call" and "Valiant"), which are being aired back-to-back on Sunday evening, and I went into the series with an open mind.

Merlin stars Colin Morgan (Doctor Who) as a young and untrained Merlin who sent by his mother from their small village to the gleaming city of Camelot, where he is apprenticed to the court physician Gaius (One Foot in the Grave's Richard Wilson). However, Merlin has a secret: he is unwittingly able to yield magic (or something akin to telekinesis in any event) and this is a dangerous ability to have in a city where magic is strictly outlawed and its usage punishable by a swift death.

The first episode focuses on Merlin's arrival in Camelot, where he quickly makes an enemy out of the golden boy prince Arthur (Lewis' Bradley James), an egocentric and arrogant youth who enjoys torturing his servants for sport and whose own ethos is more along the lines of "might makes right" than the idealistic dreamer we know Arthur to grow up to be.

However, Merlin soon becomes firm friends with Gwen (The Visit's Angel Coulby), the handmaiden to Princess Morgana (The Tudors' Katie McGrath), whose tremulous presence at the execution of a man suspected of using witchcraft belie a secret of her own. Gwen herself is a boisterous, headstrong young woman, a bit rough and tumble, whose origins seem vastly at odds with her eventual ascension to the throne as Arthur's queen in the legends. Likewise, Merlin is summoned deep beneath the castle, where the last remaining dragon in existence (voiced by John Hurt) says that he has a destiny, one that is linked inexorably to magic.

Meanwhile, the mother of the executed man (played here by Torchwood's Eve Myles) seeks to exact her revenge on King Uther (Anthony Head) and his perfect son Arthur. She disguises herself as a noblewoman expected at the castle and seeks to ensnare the entire court in her magic-fueled vengeance, the height of which will see Arthur die by her hand. Merlin is able to withstand her spell and saves Arthur's life, a move that lands him a position as Arthur's personal valet.

The first episode ("The Dragon's Call") is awkward and believes itself to be far more clever than it actually is, offering some pratfalls and wink, wink, nudge, nudge type of humor as Merlin adapts to life within Camelot. It tries way too hard to reinvent the Arthurian legend into something that's teen-friendly and soft. Everything about the production is so clean and free from darkness or conflict that it's hard to become invested in the characters. Public executions seem so at odds with the breeziness of the rest of the plot that it's jarring. This is a Merlin and a Camelot that not only casts its major players as teenagers but also seeks to engage that group as its target audience.

The second episode ("Valiant"), which finds Merlin attempting to fulfill his role as valet to Arthur during a crucial annual tournament, is a significant improvement on the series opener but one can't shake the feeling that something is missing here, some compelling hook or dramatic element that would make this essential viewing. Would this be airing outside of primetime--or, indeed, in syndication, one could forgive such missteps but given that NBC has slated this for a primetime slot, it feels like an odd fit for the Peacock as a while.

Ultimately, Merlin is perfect family-viewing for Sunday evenings but for those of us who have outgrown our own childhoods, this series could be a hell of a lot more intelligent, witty, and gripping. If you've long since past outgrown the awkwardness of adolescence, you might just be wishing you could use some magic to make this Camelot retelling a more adult-oriented and enchanting proposition.

Merlin will launch with two back-to-back episodes on Sunday, June 21st at 8 pm ET/PT.


Chandra said…
You're much kinder to the series than I am! My review: Ugh. Clumsy writing, blatant disregard for anything that makes the Arthurian legend still compelling and resonant for modern audiences, less than stellar acting (the actors, usually so good in other things, seem vaguely embarrassed to be caught in this production), and you forgot to mention the best - sort of - special effects a limited BBC budget can buy with the public's license money. Y'know, the effects that just add to Dr. Who's charm (because all the other elements jell so nicely) but here are just worse than cheesy.

Yet another winning strategy from Ben Silverman. When will GE wake up and smell the fear & desperation wafting from Universal City?
Lioness said…
You're right in that the first two episodes are not very dark. The darkness starts creeping in with Episode 3 and shows up full on with Episode 4. Keep watching, the story is going to get much more complex and interesting next week.
Anonymous said…
I love merlin and think it's a brilliant series!!!!

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