As part of starting up this website for television and media criticisms, one of my main goals was to try watching some shows that have never been in my wheelhouse before. Typically, my main viewing choices are dramas that develop immersive worlds and nuanced personal development (Deadwood, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos) or comedies that emphasize wordplay and the relationships between their dysfunctional characters (Community, Archer, Arrested Development). However, given that these are also the shows every critic loves – some more than others – watching only these would not only make my opinions repetitive but intrinsically lower the quality of the analysis I’m trying to provide here.
So in that spirit, I decided to approach Starz’s new historical drama Camelot with an open mind. Although Starz has established something of a reputation for presenting history as soft-core porn in their Spartacus: Blood and Sand series (and even worse, they allowed Eric Schaeffer to make Gravity) an adaptation of the Arthurian legend seemed to have enough to it to make an at least interesting story. Plus, some critics I respect a great deal, including Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee, have argued that Blood and Sand is a show that goes beyond its initial impressions of gore and sex to deliver some legitimately compelling character growth (though I haven’t seen it and can’t speak to it).
So, I believed it was worth a look at least. Let us ride to… Camelot!
(Fifty minutes later) No, on second thought let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly show.
Obvious references aside, that’s honestly the best way to describe the pilot of Camelot. I went into that first episode legitimately determined to not prejudge it, but I found myself sniggering within five minutes and slapping my forehead every ten. It wasn’t that it was offensively bad, but that it was a show that didn’t offer a single thing I could take seriously, or conversely enjoy how little they were taking it seriously. It’s a cheap-looking show with delusions of grandeur, a Renaissance fair on screen that offers nothing to distinguish it from other Arthurian adaptations.
It’s a shame, because on the face of it the show creators Chris Chibnall (Torchwood) and Michael Hirst (The Tudors) have devised a fairly unconventional interpretation of the story that strips out magic in favor of politics. Morgan LeFay (Eva Green), the bastard daughter of King Uther, has returned from an exile and had her father murdered to take the throne for herself. However, the mystic Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) foresaw that such a threat would befall the kingdom in the future, and took steps to ensure the survival of the line by having Uther’s son raised in secrecy. That son, Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) is now whisked out of his small farm lifestyle and thrust into the spotlight, with an army of his father’s knights to oppose Morgan from the ruined fortress of Camelot.
That’s an interesting way to take the story, and I’d have followed it if it wasn’t for the fact that the show didn’t seem keen on having me keep up. This is, quite bluntly, one of the worst-paced episodes of television I’ve ever seen. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the meticulous plotting of AMC, or the edge-of-the-knife feeling of FX, but Camelot is simply absurd in how fast it spews out exposition and plot development. Morgan’s first meeting with Uther in years, Merlin explaining to Arthur the import of his heritage, the presentation of the soldiers loyal to Arthur by virtue of his blood – the characters move through their lines like they can’t wait to get to the next part of the plot.
And the quick pacing of the show isn’t helped much by its almost jerky style of editing – it’s fortunate there have been so many adaptations of the Arthurian legend already, because the writers aren’t in any way eager to give you time to see what’s happening. The opening scene where Morgan, Uther and his wife meet cuts back and forth between the three with such dizzying pace that we never get any sense of weight to what any of them are staying, and there’s also some unpleasant use of wide-angle shots. The fight scenes are shot somewhat competently, and Campbell Bower has apparently received enough training to know what he’s doing with a sword, but they’re not offered frequently enough to redeem the way basic dialogue is handled.
As to the performances, they’re mostly unremarkable bordering on annoying. Fiennes’ Merlin is the one I had the most hope for – the reinterpretation of Merlin as a political fixer holding back his greater powers reminded me strongly of the druid Allanon from the “Sword of Shannara” series – but he’s equally hamstrung by the show’s pacing. We don’t get a sense that he has some master plan he’s holding back on, or pursuing his own agenda in putting Arthur on the throne – just smirks and whispered promises of how he will be the greatest of kings and create the future. Campbell Bower, who I liked in the role of Anthony in “Sweeney Todd,” is at least believable as the young king, his wide-eyed expressions of disbelief conveying the feeling he knows he’s in over his head.
Out of the cast, Green seems to be the only one who seems to recognize that there’s more Renaissance fair than fantasy epic about what they’re doing in this show, and is chewing the scenery with gusto – disdainful of her new brother, Merlin, and generally anyone who isn’t her. She gives the impression of being perfectly willing to do whatever it takes to obtain her power, including forming an alliance with James Purefoy’s warlord King Lot (in a disappointing, breastless sex scene) and embracing the use of magic Merlin has sworn off. Green’s sadly been absent since “Casino Royale,” so it’s nice to see her having this much fun at least.
I could go on and on about the things I didn’t like about Camelot‘s pilot episode – a musical score that wants to be “Lord of the Rings” so badly it hurts, hilarious special effects to represent polymorphing spells – but I don’t want to beat up too heavily on something that isn’t my kind of show to begin with. I do want to emphasize I was perfectly prepare to accept it as a corny SyFy original movie-style take on the story with more blood and violence than cable usually allows, but I feel that works best when the show knows it’s trying to be that, and I can’t shake the feeling that Hirst and Chibnall were trying to play this reasonably straight. And if that’s the case, they’ve failed miserably – at one point, Arthur stares dumbfounded at Merlin when he mentions offhand that he has a half-sister while leaving the room, and the look on his face is about the same look I was directing at the screen for most of the show.
Despite some information on what’s to come in future episodes – the introduction of Guinevere and the resulting love triangle, a reinterpretation of the sword in the stone as more superstition than legend – I will not be coming back to Camelot and I’d advise everyone else to just wait for Game of Thrones next week. That looks like it could be the real thing. Camelot? It’s only a model.