TV Review: CAMELOT; Arthurian, on the rocks

Review re-posted as the episode airs tonight on Channel 4 in the U.K.The Arthurian legend is one of the most enduring of English folklore; forever being retold, re-imagined and updated for new audiences. In recent times we've had the dubious historical accuracy of 2004's King Arthur movie, together with the family-friendly magical adventures of the BBC's Merlin. Having found surprise success with Spartacus: Blood & Sand, US cable channel Starz turn their attention to the Arthurian legend for a glossy co-production with GK-TV that broadly follows the classic Le Morte d'Arthur version of the story -- with a few alterations and flourishes. But does Camelot offer enough innovations to attract viewers who've been swamped by magic, knights, castles and swords since the turn-of-the-century? Sadly, no. There's nothing about Camelot that sets it apart as being very original or unpredicted; it's just a competent retelling with a few twists. King Uther (Sebastian Koch) is poisoned by his daughter Morgan La Fay (Eva Green), who immediately banishes her mother Igraine (Claire Forlani) from the kingdom, while she conspires to increase her power by forming a union with her father's neighbouring rival King Lot (James Purefoy.) Meanwhile, sorcerer Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) tries to repair the damage by journeying to find Uther's illegitimate son Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower), whom he smuggled away as a newborn baby to be raised by Sir Ector (Sean Pertwee) and his wife. It's hoped that the boyish Arthur, who's lived an unremarkable country life alongside his brother Kay (Peter Mooney), will embrace his noble birthright and seize power from his evil half-sister Morgan, to usher in a prophesized era of chivalry and prosperity. It's hard to pick fault with the story or characters, in broad terms, as they're part of a classic tale that's survived centuries. If you dislike meddling with tradition, you'll likely warm to Camelot, as it's pretty much the most popular myth people know and love. Or you may find it disappointing this retelling doesn't offer anything distinctive -- beyond the decision to involve magic, but only in a limited capacity. In this universe, casting spells is a difficult business (no casual waving of magic staffs here) and often has side effects for those who wield such power, which means Camelot can appeal to fantasists and realists. The presence of the supernatural is arguably Camelot's only hope of distinguishing it from it nearest current rival -- HBO's Game Of Thrones. Camelot simply can't compete with George R.R Martin's opus, but it may yet provide an escape route for Thrones viewers who aren't yet aware that epic tale doesn't involve witches, warlocks, dragons and trolls. The cast are a promising group, by and large. A bald Joseph Fiennes delivers a performance that's as clenched and distancing as the one he gave in FlashForward, playing a Merlin who's more political manipulator than sage wizard, but it's at least something different; Jamie Campbell Bower brings an impetuous to flaxen Arthur, a young man suddenly thrust into the spotlight and adulthood, and seeing him mature could be good fun; the undervalued James Purefoy is marvellous as the ill-famed King Lot; and Eva Green is delicious as evil Morgan, primarily because she has a striking beauty that includes piercing eyes to chill blood from twenty paces. It helps that the actress has no qualms about on-screen nudity (did you see The Dreamers?), as Camelot's already exposing breasts and bottoms to titillate viewers. Although, really, you have to wonder if it's a wise decision for this show to effectively turn its back on a younger demographic, who would otherwise be lured its way. And if it's chasing an audience akin to Spartacus: Blood & Sand and True Blood's fanbase, it should forget about restraint and embrace the possibilities for an uncensored, passionate, bloodthirsty, salacious take on the Arthurian legend. These first two episodes were fairly tame, considering. It actually smacks of a series that doesn't quite know what it wants to be: gritty historical drama or spirited fantasy adventure? It therefore aims for both and falls somewhere in the middle. Chris Chibnall (Torchwood, Law & Order UK) is the showrunner, with Michael Hirst (The Tudors) as a producer, and there's possibly a tug-of-war over how best to proceed. Still, the second episode "Camelot" was a notable improvement over the tepid pilot, and introduced some intriguing differences; from the obvious (a unique, exciting twist on the Sword In The Stone with a treacherous waterfall), to the more subtle (the introduction of a love-triangle over Guinevere where Arthur's the potential love rat.) By the end of the first two hours, it's actually quite surprising how far Camelot's progresses the story. Arthur's crowned king, Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) has been introduced, the "sword of Mars" (aka Excalibur) has been retrieved, Camelot is being rebuilt, and three prominent characters have been killed (including a key villain.) In fact, more has happened in two episodes than three years of Merlin, although it's possible the writers will regret such alacrity if they start to run low on ideas in the weeks to come. Overall, Camelot faces an uphill struggle because the Arthurian legend's so overexposed there's no excitement about its existence as a continuing adult drama, and Game Of Thrones is posed to steal its thunder later this month. I just hope it embraces its magical side (without it becoming a crutch), makes the most of a decent cast, loses any timidity over the sex and violence, and quickly proves it has somewhere to go once all the Arthurian icons have been introduced.
WRITER: Chris Chibnall (story by Michael Hirst & Chris Chibnall) DIRECTOR: Ciaran Donnelly CAST: Jamie Campbell Bower, Eva Green, Joseph Fiennes, Tamsin Egerton, Peter Mooney, Clive Standen & Philip Winchester TRANSMISSION: 1 April 2011, Starz
I will continue to review Camelot every week at my blog, Dan's Media Digest.
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