Camelot debuts tonight on Starz at 10 p.m. Eastern. The first two episodes will air tonight, from 10 until midnight, Eastern time.
All things considered, a dark, pay cable take on the Arthurian legend isn’t a bad idea, particularly if structured as a Pacific- or Band Of Brothers-esque miniseries, where 10 episodes would allow for things to build over time and finally break in bloody climax. Sure, this is a story that’s been told thousands of times before, in all possible media (and there are television adaptations as well), but pay cable could really get into the guts of the story. Thus, Starz’s new series Camelot (produced in conjunction with British broadcasters) might seem to have a modicum of promise. Hell, the thing attracted Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green, and one of its chief writers is Chris Chibnall, who’s been responsible for some of the better episodes of the new Doctor Who. This has a pedigree, and there’s every reason to hope it will be good. Sadly, it has lots of problems.
There are two ways one could go with a pay cable version of the Camelot story. It could become a dark, gritty tale of what it might have really been like in the Middle Ages, when Arthur consolidated the realm and ruled at Camelot. It could get us deep into the mire and let us know how these people really lived, sort of a Deadwood of the Middle Ages, if you will. Any fantastical elements, any magic, would be readily explainable via science or inexplicable to those who bore witness to them (the term, I believe, is “low” fantasy). Thus, people like Merlin and Morgan le Fay would seem more like strange people on the edges of society, than central figures.
The other way, of course, is to turn everything into entertaining, over-the-top trash. Really play up the lurid blood and sex aspects of the story, deconstructing the legend into something that’s not as stodgy and ready for your senior English class in British literature. Play up the plot twists. Mine the love triangles for all their worth. Go over-the-top into camp and pure entertainment, going for something closer to Starz’s other hit historical series, Spartacus: Blood And Sand. There’s room for thoughtful historical takes on classic stories, sure, but there’s also room for raw spectacle, where everything comes crashing down around the hero and he somehow finds his way out, even if it’s through tragedy.
The main problem with Camelot, then, is that it tries to split the difference. Parts of it are exceedingly self-serious. Parts of it are exceedingly goofy and lurid. (There’s a fair amount of nudity in this, because, well, it’s on Starz and why the hell not?) But none of it coheres and what ends up happening is that everything becomes very dry and boring and academic. Even though the story told here makes notable tweaks to the Arthurian legend everybody in Western civilization knows at least a bit about, it still feels like everyone involved is standing in front of the camera and reading from a textbook that lays out their own version of the myth.
If nothing else, the casting for Starz’s version is pretty good. Jamie Campbell Bower plays the young man Arthur, raised by a man and woman far off in the country because the great wizard Merlin hoped that keeping Arthur from his true heritage—as the heir to the throne—would be enough to give him the wisdom his true father, Uther, lacked. As Camelot opens, Uther is poisoned by a mysterious young girl, and the quest to claim his throne begins in earnest. King Lot, a local lord, believes he has the best claim to the throne and begins preparations to consolidate his power. Meanwhile, Merlin (Fiennes) disappears into the mists of the countryside and returns with a boy he says is meant to lead the Britons. You probably have an idea of how this will turn out.
As Arthur, Campbell Bower just might be the best thing about the series. He’s suitably smitten by a pretty young maiden he meets on the beach (after seeing her in a dream). He’s good at conveying the fact that he’s not entirely sure this whole “king” thing is for him, even when the script has him reacting to news of his true destiny with a big ol’ shrug, as though he figured this was coming all along. Campbell Bower believably plays what should be the core of this series: a young man learning he is king and having to rapidly learn while on the job. It’s a pity the scripts don’t work nearly as well at this arc, turning, instead, into a sort of Disney Jungle Cruise of popular Arthurian motifs.
Fiennes is… Fiennes. If you knew and loved him in FlashForward, then you may find some amusement here, as he finds some way to turn every line he has as Merlin into a course in his own personal school of acting insane. He shouts lines that don’t really need to be shouted. He races through the fog in a robe. He goes way over the top when understated might be better. When locked in scenes with Eva Green, who does her damnedest to just cut through all of the dross and just turn in a solid Morgan le Fay, he often seems to be challenging her to an overacting-off. It’s like Fiennes and Campbell-Bowers are in wildly different versions of this series, and this creates a weirdly vacillating tone throughout. Finally, as Guinevere, Tamsin Egerton is mostly asked to look pretty. She’s very good at it.
But the biggest problem with all of this is that it’s just BORING. It’s one thing to be slow-moving. A slow-moving TV show can be truly exciting if it feels like everything’s going somewhere. But in Camelot, we already pretty much know where things are going, which makes it that much harder to invest in the fact that the show expects us to get invested in yet another Arthurian love triangle, only this one is going to be told at a pace that moves more slowly than many geological epochs. Every so often, there will be an idea worthy of the extra time spent on it—like Arthur’s quest for the sword in the stone, dramatized in tonight’s second hour—but most of this just feels slow for the sake of filling enough time to get to the end. This becomes even more annoying when the series insists on keeping things from us. When Arthur meets a gorgeous young woman and falls in love, of course she has to be Guinevere, but when the series keeps her name from us for quite a while, it suggests there may be some sort of twist coming up. Instead, she’s just Guinevere, and the hour in which we don’t learn her name seems even sillier in retrospect.
There are interesting ideas in Camelot, and I’m sure there will be a vocal audience that just loves it. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised by the show coming up with a killer finale when all is said and done. But what’s on screen is only fitfully interesting enough in the first three episodes to justify doing the story yet again. Every so often, Camelot will spark to life, as when it suggests that Arthur perhaps wasn’t meant to be king but is, instead, the culmination of centuries of careful cultivation by Merlin, or when Morgan le Fay reveals her deepest secrets. But more often than not, this is an adaptation that feels torn between approaches, between reverence and entertainment, and that leaves the series somewhat lumpy and inert.