Hi, this is probably old news in the US but we've just had episode 3 in the UK and I've got to say, I'm loving it.
There have been a few treatments of the Arthurian legend lately and I've found most of them disappointing. I think there's an inherent problem with producing well-known stories - that you've got to have enough of the expected elements to satisfy people's expectations but also do something new with it to justify a retelling. The good thing here is that the 'something new' is a largley faithful treatment of the source material, with a more modern and perhaps more subtle interpretation. They've crammed in all of the familiar stuff but resisted being corny, to create a version that's faithul with a twist.
I picked up a copy of Le Morte D'Arthur a while ago and confess to only making it half way through. Fairplay to Thomas Mallory filling his prison time trying to weave all of these stories together but, by today's standards, it is a bit of a rambling mess and seemingly difficult to turn into a TV series if you're starting from scratch rather than just copying previous versions. I understand this is an American production and it's so pleasingly crafted, it's difficult to pinpoint all of the good bits - but here are a few:
- a great British cast. Fiennes is a cracking Merlin, broodingly mysterious and pleasantly sinister. Arthur is a bit wet behind the ears but that makes it more of an interesting starting point in the knowledge of what he becomes. All of the others are relatively unfamiliar and not going for the cliched school of derrring do that's so easy to stick on this kind of thing.
- locations. It's difficult to shake off Disney castles and remember that we're supposed to be in 6th century Cornwall. The ruined Camelot is suitably preraphaelite and does actually look like tintagel. Even the Loe Bar, which is a nice walk from my parents and is supposed to be where the lady of the lake lives, looks right. I don't know if it was actually shot there but they've bothered to make it 'a lake on a beach' and haven't just settled for some medieval castle or bad studio mock up somewhere.
- characterisations - Again, the corny thing about these age old tales is good prevailing over evil, which does have to be clapped on the back, but makes for a boring evening after CofE school. The great thing here though is that nobody is entirely good or evil, whichever side they're on. Arthur is wet and spineless, letching after the wife of his champion. Merlin is sinister and manipulative, with mysterious motives for engineering Arthur's rise to power. The Knights aren't just blankly chivalrous and have to be corralled. This is THE formula for this kind of story, rather than just have people do great deeds and get on with it.
- magic - I'd be biased here but I think magic is a fairly essential part of the story and it always seems to have been abit of a sticking point, verging between 'disney magic' and no magic at all, like the lacklustre 'Arthur' that was even less Arthurial than Dudley Moore. Here they've restrained themselves and made magic like a choice elicit substance. Merlin's abit of a blagger who occasionally falls off the wagon and Morgana is well and truly in a ditch. It reminds me slightly of the Michael Praed Robin of Sherwood that always verged on a kind of retro pagan aesthetic and it just looks cool.
- twists on classic details - it's a silly concept but it seems they've tried to make those classic bits 'believable' by letting the audience in on a bit of a secret and also appealing to anyone familiar with the references. For example, excaliber was originally called something like 'caliburn', which is here the name of the swordsmith who makes it, who is subsequently accidentally killed by Merlin, who then proceeds to accidentally kill his daughter 'excaliber' in pursuing her for the sword, whereupon she falls in the lake. Simple things please simple minds but this simple mind likes simple things like that.
So, in conclusion, watch it, as I think this is something magicians have got to love. Swords, sorcery and sex. What more could one want of a Saturday evening?! :)