NBC’s Merlin – TV Review

NBC is rolling out Merlin this Sunday, June 21st, and it’s opening the Sunday night schedule.  While it’s a pretty decent bit of fun, it’s a tricky game for a primetime spot.  It’s even trickier because the show looks to be playing out in a manner that is going to require at least six or seven episodes to get settled into itself.  That’s a tough game in today’s world of ratings demands.

NBC Photo: Nick Briggs
NBC Photo: Nick Briggs

The treatment of Arthurian legend this time around finds Arthur and Merlin as approaching mid-twenties-ish youngsters.  Arthur is trying to deal with the pressures of being Prince under the high expectations of father Uther.  Merlin comes to Camelot as basically a peasant under the shelter of the court physician.  Other favorites show themselves in the regular cast as well.  Morgana is Uther’s ward, and Gwen is her maid.

Our twisty entrance to this spin on the affair is that Uther outlawed all forms of magic when he took things over twenty years ago.  Not only does Merlin have to figure out what to do with his life, he has to conceal his magical abilities along the way.

We throw into the mix the fact that Arthur is basically a complete ass, and that a dragon tells Merlin he is destined to aid Arthur throughout his life.  The entire fate of the kingdom rests on Arthur becoming a great King, and Merlin more or less making it happen.

NBC Photo: Mike Hogan
NBC Photo: Mike Hogan

Though the first couple of episodes play out unnervingly similar to any number of syndicated shows that will be called to mind merely by mentioning “fantasy,” there is some potential here.  It’s establishing efforts are largely weak, and aim too much at lowest common denominators (Arthur is supposed to be a jerk, so clearly we must have him bully the helpless), but there is the hint that it could evolve well.  Move along several episodes to a point where we can feature two young men working together to overcome their unique burdens, and forging a friendship despite their mutual lack of interest in one, and we may put together something pretty interesting to go with the hack, slash, and flash.
There are also any number of other avenues to creativity available to the effort.  Uther, for a start, seems to be a right bastard, which opens several doors.  We’ve also got to wonder just how Morgana and Gwen will start figuring into the grand scheme at this stage of the game.

Even without having to speak to potential, the show does have some good things going for it.  Colin Morgan’s Merlin is fantastically likable, and Bradley James’ Arthur works quite well once we move past the ludicrously villainous paste he’s asked to cover himself in.  Richard Wilson‘s Gaius is rock-solid in the role of the physician/grandfather figure who watches out for Merlin.

NBC Photo: Shine Limited
NBC Photo: Shine Limited

The standout at the moment is Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Rupert), though it may be uncomfortable for some to watch him being not only rather tough, but just plain mean.

It’s one of those shows, like the entertaining Leged of the Seeker, that will probably work for you if the you find the theory at all appealing.  It might have some trouble winning over those that don’t jump at the idea though, especially when there’s a giant, friendly, talking dragon in the first episode.  That may turn out to be rather a shame, because if the show winds around to where I think it’s going, it may end up a little gem of television viewing.  Don’t expect it to fly out of the gates at you, but it’s worth checking out.

NBC’s Merlin homepage is rather interesting, and has some tie-in bonuses.

TV.com has a video clip from the first episode here.

Video below is cast interview footage.


Are You Screening?

Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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