TV Showcase: ‘Merlin’ entertains, but has yet to enchant

22 Jun

merlin

June 22, 2009-

Debuting last Sunday night in the 8 p.m. summer time slot, BBC’s fanciful new import Merlin hearkens to a different era; the world of the family friendly drama program. Created as a revamp of the Arthurian legend, this new Merlin is more indebted to Harry Potter than Le Morte d’Arthur or even the above-average 1998 miniseries that saw Sam Neil don the wizard’s cloak.

This time through, young upstart Arthur Pendragon and the sorcerer Merlin are roughly the same age and competing together for all of the same things. This includes Guinevere, who starts off the first episode as a side character far more chummy with the wonderful wiz than the brash and arrogant Arthur, who is being wooed by Lady Morgana. Morgana, under the guardianship of Arthur’s father Uther, is more or less like his step-sister, although they do not appear to be related in this ‘all audiences’ adaptation. Throw in Anthony Head of Buffy fame as the stern and aristocratically brutal Uther Pendragon and John Hurt as the voice of an honest-to-goodness real dragon and you’ve got the recipe for a light, thrilling fantasy adventure perfect for the last night of a summer weekend.

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I have always enjoyed the fantasy offerings of the BBC, and recently their pedigree has improved greatly. NBC’s decision to import Merlin without altering or updating it was a good one, and whether or not it finds a significant audience on television here, it deserves to. It’s been awhile since a traditional fantasy series has been even remotely watchable and Merlin goes one further and turns out to be actually good, despite giving this collection of Welsh, French and English legends the O.C. teen treatment.  

Colin Morgan as Merlin, the young magician who is sent by his mother to the custody of the court physician Gaius, doesn’t make much of an impression. He’s the nerdy schoolboy to Bradley James brash jock variation on Arthur. The opening scenes between them reminded me of Shrekbut once I got over the fact that the mentor/student relationship that has rooted almost every other version of the story would be absent, I began to warm to this altered concept of the great warrior and the wiley wizard as a medieval Tom and Huck.

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The two best cast members are Angel Coulby as a far more earthy and pragmatic Guinevere and Anthony Head (who played the Merlin-esque Giles to SMG’s Arthur on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as the charming but ruthless Uther, who has chained the last of the dragons beneath his castle and outlawed magic upon pain of death. Head brings a few extra shades of character to Uther and it’s welcome. He seems a likely villain but just as the gentle Giles wasn’t all good, neither does it seem that Uther is all bad. I look forward to the way in which this gifted actor will play with that wiggle room. Coulby is a beauty but not in the conventional way we might expect for Guinevere. She downplays her role in this first episode, but this might be one of the first times where I felt they managed to cast an actress that would be worth fighting for once all the eventual Arthurian tragedy ensues.

The production values are about what you would expect from a modern BBC production, and I particularly liked the storybook polish that many of the magical sequences possessed, including a witch vanishing from the town square, Merlin’s eyes flashing as he teleported objects and last but certainly not least the great gold dragon that speaks with the husky rattle of John Hurt. Epic voiceovers about destiny, clandestine plots to kill Arthur and the usual teen predicaments of “what will I wear to the Anti-Magic Celebration?” and “just because I’m destined to help him does it mean I can’t punch him?” all boil down to a delicious magical brew that comes up just a bit short on real enchantment. I’m not sold on Merlin being a surefire epic or a television classic, but the pieces are in place for an adaptation just as good as anything that has gone before.

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3 Responses to “TV Showcase: ‘Merlin’ entertains, but has yet to enchant”

  1. dhaRma shark June 22, 2009 at 2:44 pm #

    I doubt this will last another 2 episodes. I guess in the summer, it might. I was mildly entertained, but I love most things fantasy…This just didn’t feel like it belonged on network TV. In either case, it’s better than more reality TV. I’ll probably watch until it’s cancelled.

    • Bartleby June 22, 2009 at 2:55 pm #

      My guess is it got picked up because of the following that stuff like Dr. Who has gotten over here. It fits right in on the BBC but you are right, it doesn’t have same feel that American primetime nextwork programs have. It’s probably appealing to NBC because they can buy the airing rights for it and they already have a full season ready to go, whether they decide to show it all or not.

      The show’s success overseas is what will determine if it gets more seasons. In fact, the first season is already on region 2 dvd.

      I agree that the show will need to pick up in the following episodes to keep mine, or anyone else’s, attention. It has potential and I’m a sucker for Arthurian movies. Heck, I even watched King Arthur all the way through.

  2. Fortress Guy April 7, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    We are more fans of Gaius and Morgana than Gwen and Uther.

    We like the show. Despite the fact that they could not match season one, it is still fun (usually – if you do not count troll episodes) to watch.

    Here is our take on Merlin season two with lots of pics and a little wit if you are interested:

    http://fortresstakes.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/merlin-2009-bbc-season-2-13-episodes/

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