October 02, 2012

TV Show Review: Merlin

I’ll be blunt. In my opinion, today's television is on the whole pretty much worthless drivel. The rise of the throw-away, mindless “Reality TV” era has combined with a nauseating litany of insipid and completely unoriginal string of doctor, lawyer, and cop “dramas” to create a Great Depression in television entertainment. This claptrap of dramas (both reality and not) plus other recent sitcoms try to remain relevant by ever pushing the envelop in cursing, sex, and other questionable content which seems only to exist to tantalize and shock, rather than create meaningful plot and character development. I blame the lack of creativity mostly on the exceedingly mind-boggling number of stations that exist. However, that can’t explain it all. For example, I’m trying to give NBC’s Revolution a fair shake. A show about the struggles of humanity years after all of the power in the world goes out is new, refreshing, and presents a gold mine of potential. Alas, it has started out as Mad Max meets 90210 with apocalyptic, Hollywood hairdos and designer clothes fit for a Twilight set, a cardboard “teen-girl-wants-to-avenge-daddy’s-death” heroine, the reluctant Han Solo-esque anti-hero, and a cookie-cutter villain. But I’ll continue for a few eps more, hoping it doesn’t flail like the last promising sci-fi yarn, Terra Nova. Oh, well, there's always college football, at least.

Okay, there are some worthy exceptions. And, yes, some people prefer their entertainment to be mere, wasteful escapism never to be thought about again (though I’d argue a two-hour movie suits that purpose better).

But I didn’t come here to rant. Instead, I’ll talk about one positive my kids and I have discovered: BBC’s Merlin. Season 5 premiers this Saturday over in merry England and will air in the U.S. on SyFy starting in January 2013, though you may be able to view it online somewhere as it airs across the Pond. Seasons 1-4 are available online (free and clear or hacked) or via Netflix, I believe. I highly recommend the series.

Merlin is a re-telling of the famous hodge-podge of Arthurian legends through the titular warlock’s point of view. Rather than an older, father-type figure, this series portrays Merlin as a contemporary of Arthur's, perhaps slightly younger than the iconic king, who begins the series as a prince and remains as such through most of the first four seasons. I think that both fans of Camelot and newcomers will enjoy this fresh, stimulating, and family-friendly adventure yarn.

There be dragons in this one.
Season 1 introduces Merlin as an inexperienced youth with the rare gift of magic. The problem is that King Uther has banned all forms of sorcery and witchcraft, whether used of good or evil. Indeed, Merlin’s first impression of Camelot upon walking into the city is the execution of a warlock. Uther has declared a crusade against all manner of magic and any people or creatures associated with “the Old Religion.” Uther’s stubborn, maniacal obsession against eradicating the Old Religion is almost strangely a character in and of itself and the primary protagonistic pool in which the show swims, mainly and especially as Merlin must keep his powers a secret upon pain of death. As the series develops, Uther’s hatred proves born of his dalliance with magic when he bargained with the priestess Nimueh to conceive Arthur, since his wife, Ygraine, was barren. However, to give a life requires a life and so Ygraine dies in childbirth. Uther blames magic and sees all of it as evil (long beyond the point of reason in the matter), but is clearly blinded by grief and wracked by the knowledge of his own guilt. It eventually costs him everything.

The first season is decidedly episodic. Merlin is first put-off with Arthur’s prideful and spoiled upbringing, but is nonetheless thrust into the role of the prince’s man servant. Arthur can barely stand his nearly inept servant, but amazingly relies on him more and more. A reluctant relationship develops in which the two find nuggets of potential in each other but still relate in the roles of arrogant master and bumbling servant. On his off hours, Merlin develops two other important relationships. First he lives with Gaius, a family friend, the court physician, and a mysterious father figure whom you know there is more to than meets the eye. Gaius is also the only person in Camelot that knows Merlin’s secret and has a library of books from the Old Religion of which Merlin takes advantage. Second, Merlin discovers the last of the dragons, Kilgharrah, whom Uther had captured and chained deep beneath Camelot. Kilgharrah provides aid and help and antagonism, as well as prophecies that Merlin must protect the young Prince Arthur who will one day be a great king and bring back the Old Religion. At first, this news does not please Merlin who wants as little to do with the prince as possible. As Merlin becomes more and more powerful, his connection with Kilgharrah becomes defining and inseparable.

If there must be a reckless, charming rouge,
Eoin Macken as Sir Gwaine pulls it off triumphantly.
Through Season 3, the episodic nature fairly holds form. Many times, there is little relation between one week and the next. Many are silly – some groan-inducing – but most are fun.  Indeed, much of it smacks of Saturday afternoon matinee escapism. But despite that one ep may be thrown away individually, they all add up to create the background for which Season 4 really kicks into gear as a dramatic, soap operatic, and engaging tale. The only early story arc – which takes over in Season 4 – is that of Morgana and her slow progression to the “dark side.” Publicly she is Uther’s ward. Only he and Gaius know that she is really his daughter and Arthur’s half-sister. No one knows she has magic, including herself. That develops gradually, as does her traditional role as one of Arthur’s legendary antagonists, fueled by her claim to the throne and a growing hatred of Uther’s vengeance against her kind. Eventually of course, she allies with evil and seeks to destroy Uther and everything associated with him, especially Arthur and Camelot.

So much of the Arthurian legend, ancient and contemporary, is uniquely woven into this retold tapestry. The Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle is introduced, nurtured, and resolved before Arthur becomes king. Guinevere herself is a commoner and Morgana's servant girl. Excalibur is semi-forged by the great dragon, Kilgharrah. Many famous Knights of Camelot like Perceval and Bedivere die long before the Round Table appears. Mordred is a Druid, not the child of Arthur, Morgana, or Morgause as various legends depict. The story of Arthur’s birth does not involve Merlin changing Uther’s form. Freya is the Lady of the Lake, instead of Nimueh. And so on. A list of familiar people and places from the mythical tales make a fresh appearance or play significant roles: Albion, Avalon, Tristan and Isolde, Agravain, Galahad, King Lot, the Black Knight, the Fisher King, the Questing Beast, and even the Holy Grail (which the series calls the Cup of Life).

Due to its episodic nature and need to introduce its vision of the Arthurian story, Merlin is a bit fluffier to begin. The special effects are passable and the acting stiff, but both improve immensely over the first couple of seasons. The content becomes meatier in Season 3 and darker in Season 4, with both stakes and adventure ratcheted up significantly. And while the mood deepens, Merlin still exudes a great deal of charm, pathos, and humor thanks in no small part to the capable cast. King Uther’s vendetta against magic is frustrating and tragic. Merlin’s efforts and anguish with hiding his true identity is distressing. The Arthur-Guinevere love story is moving. And Sir Gwaine’s infectious energy simply rocks!

Much ridiculed in other circles, I'm sure, the love and loyalty between
Arthur and Merlin is of the John 15:13 type. Not only does it drive the show,
it is much the better off for it.
The show’s beating heart is the wonderfully crafted bromance between Arthur and Merlin. The initially reluctant relationship evolves into unbreakable commitment between two men that will, and do, sacrifice everything for each other. It is built upon tangible connectors such as living and fighting and struggling together, as well as an intangible aura that portends of greater things. On the one hand, it seems a rock-solid friendship because it is prophetically fateful. Yet on the other, it seems so very fragile as the revelation of Merlin’s secret could risk all in eroding that most sacred characteristic of any strong relationship: trust.

To be sure, many standard tropes are present.  Way too many times Merlin uses magic to save Arthur’s life unbeknownst to anyone. Merlin and the heroes have more than one opportunity to kill Morgana but, in true Hollywood fashion, fail to “pull the trigger” only to face a new evil plot. Camelot is taken over by the enemy (we may agree a rather climactic and epic event) not once, but twice. And Camelot’s dungeons have got to be the easiest to break free from in all of medieval history. Merlin’s strengths more than cover its foibles. As a family friendly show, it is never gratuitous or disturbing – if that is what you want, there is always HBO, Showtime, STARZ, and AMC (plus, the major American networks aren’t far behind). Yet it can still be dark and gritty, creating tension and dilemmas that challenge the characters and their beliefs with decisions of profound and meaningful consequence. For the audience, it raises questions about justice, peace, honor, commitment, loyalty, and servanthood. Most importantly, it asks at what lengths those ideals can be realized and at what costs they are achieved. That is, after all, the timeless message for which Arthur and Camelot stand.