Starz new 10-episode series Camelot began tonight. I was excited to see how the Pendragons and their friends and enemies would be portrayed. I’m a fan of the Arthurian legend, in many of its adaptations — from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian stories, to the films Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to the fun SyFy channel’s “when they were young” series, Merlin. It’s a great story, full of drama and romance and quests and bloody battles, so it is no surprise that it is also one that begs to be told again and again.
Eva Green is a strong Morgan Le Fay — she dispatches her father (and Arthur’s) Uther Pendragon before the opening credits roll and immediately seizes power. She uses everything she can — sorcery, her mind and her body to secure the throne. But Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) sees that the future king of England must be Uther’s son Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) and he goes to retrieve the boy, who has been raised away from court, for his own safety.
The skeptical young Arthur has heard stories about the wizard Merlin and wants to know if they are true. Merlin’s response is, “I can do things others believe impossible. Is that sorcery?” Like its other versions, in this telling Arthur may be the hero, but Merin is the hero behind-the scenes. And there is magic. Shape-shifting occurs and potions are stirred and a sword is yanked from a stone. But Merlin’s main agenda seems more political than magical.
The colors of Camelot are muted, hazy — in costumes, settings, and scenery — browns, grays, greens and blues. Merlin is trying to bring Arthur and the ruined court of Camelot out of the shadows. As Arthur’s attire and surroundings get richer, will the look of the show as well?
So much of the Arthur legend is about manipulation and fate. Merlin and Morgan trying (and succeeding) to push people around like chess pieces on a board, and the destiny of doomed relationships. It’s an interesting start, with Fiennes and Green the strongest players so far, but I also liked Peter Mooney’s Kay as Arthur’s right hand and much-needed support (and maybe even backbone.) James Purefoy was also a fun and nasty King Lot.
The show peppers nudity throughout, a la cable series predecessors The Pillars of the Earth, The Tudors, and Rome. I couldn’t help but giggle, however, when Arthur dreamt of a naked girl coming out of the water (actually Guinevere) and think of this immortal Monty Python dialogue: “Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government…You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!” Camelot is strongest when it wields its swords and mixes its political machinations with a little bit of magic, rather than when it’s simply flashing the viewer.