‘Merlin’ Premiere Lacks Luster

by Shannon Baldo
Columnist

Although I had planned to use my few hundred words this week detailing something appropriate to the week of fall previews, a topic just appeared, like some kind of magic act — here, however, the rabbit in the hat is more akin to Monty Python’s killer beast. For this week, I’m afraid I have to write a fairly scathing review of one of my favorite shows which recently returned for its new season on the other side of the pond — BBC’s smash hit “Merlin.”

Though filled with Britishisms and actors more akin to English than American sensibilities, the show “Merlin” has gained a significant following on both continents, broadcast stateside by BBC America, Syfy and even NBC. Following the adolescence and early adulthood of Camelot’s favorite characters — Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and Morgana — “Merlin” offers a new, lighthearted and refreshing take on these classic British myths.

Of course, the show is rather blasphemous in its handling of these traditions. Gone is the wizened, powerful Merlin of Disney’s “The Sword and the Stone,” replaced with a goofy, teenage Merlin (Colin Morgan) dumbfounded by his powers and somehow assigned as Arthur’s personal servant. Gone is the valiant, noble Arthur of Camelot, here seen as a spoiled yet well-meaning prince (Bradley James) trying to do the best for his kingdom. Gone is the cold, snobbish Guinevere, changed into the warm, kindhearted peasant girl Gwen (Angel Coulby), who falls for Arthur while serving his stepsister Morgana (Katie McGrath) — here a confused girl drawn to darkness by her inability to cope with her magical powers.

And yet, despite all of these ludicrous changes, through the first and second seasons the show was by far one of the best of the British imports. The young cast provided a fresh and sympathetic look at traditional characters, and, as they were joined by great actors such as John Hurt, Anthony Stewart Head and Richard Wilson, the acting remained phenomenal throughout. The writing also maintained a high quality. Minus a few episodes clearly designed for childish entertainment, the cleverness which makes great television writing constantly shone through, illuminating the characters as simultaneously heroic and relatable. The cinematography also contained great promise, with each episode peppered by stunning shots and noticeably talented editing; plus, the special effects were done by The Mill, the same company famed for its brilliant work on the 2005 revival of Doctor Who.

All of the traits which mark a truly great show — as well as those which encourage its popularity — existed in “Merlin,” making it a cross-cultural hit and rendering it one of the most anticipated shows returning to British screens this fall. However, the third season rang in recently with a special two-part episode, which rather sadly composed one of the worst two hours of television I’ve seen in ages. The relationship between Merlin and Arthur, previously one of brotherly bickering, now becomes one of annoyance and disrespect; Arthur’s father (Head) switches instantaneously from stoic to melodramatic; and Morgana’s teary reunion with her father figure shifts from a warm if tense relationship to one more frighteningly suggestive of incest. And this, of course, says nothing about the special effects of an army of skeletons — rather reminiscent of the classic “Jason and the Argonauts” — or the lackluster cinematography, all of which necessarily left the audience in a state of disappointment.

I write this not to discourage you, dear readers, from watching “Merlin,” for at least the first two seasons comprise a truly fantastic viewing experience which you won’t want to miss. However, the import has come to demonstrate one of the most tragic aspects of television — by the medium’s inherent need to pander to an audience, often quality writing and acting are thrown away in the wake of cheap thrills and clichéd gimmicks. And though I still have some hope that “Merlin” will pull through for its multitude of fans, I discovered in the final credits that these new episodes were written by Julian Jones, one of the creators of the show who has worked on it from the very beginning — and that is nothing if not an ominous sign.

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One Response to ‘Merlin’ Premiere Lacks Luster

  1. Sadly, season 2 was a little disappointing. But they DID rebound in season 3 in our opinion. We thought the skeleton army thing was classic fun.

    Here is my take on season 3 with lots of pics and a little wit if you are interested:

    http://fortresstakes.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/merlin-2010-bbc-season-3-13-episodes/

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