I have a lot of guilty pleasures when it comes to television, and one of them is the BBC series "Merlin." I know it's a kids' show patterned off of "Smallville," of all things, but it's a lot of fun. I caught up on the third series this week, which I think was its best series yet, so I want to put down some thoughts. Spoilers ahead.
"Merlin" is a prequel series of sorts to the famous King Arthur stories, that cheerfully rewrites the established character histories and timelines to suit its own ends. You have the young Merlin (Colin Morgan) working as a manservant to Prince Arthur (Bradley James) while honing his magic skills in secret with the help of an elderly guardian, Gaius (Richard Wilson). Merlin can't reveal his magic because of Arthur's sorcery-hating father, King Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head), whose ward, the Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath), is also developing more sinister powers. We also see the beginnings of a relationship forming between Arthur and Guinevere (Angel Coulby), who is Morgana's maid in this version. Colorblind casting, a lot of appealing young leads, and a total lack of faithfulness to Arthurian legend kept the show interesting during the first two series. The production values of "Merlin" are decent, with a lot of CGI creatures and picturesque settings. Morgan and James have a great rapport as Merlin and Arthur, and their medieval buddy comedy antics got me through a lot of the more tedious, monster-of-the-week episodes.
However, none of the major storylines ever progressed beyond a certain point. Morgana's loyalties shifted as her powers grew, but she stopped short of becoming a real villain. Arthur and Gwen flirted, but never openly acknowledged their feelings for each other. As for Merlin, he managed to keep the secret of his powers from everybody important week after week, while constantly building up the big reveal that we know can't happen until the very end of the show. I always hated it when kids' shows hit the reset button at the end of each episode, so it never felt like there were real stakes to any of the adventures. "Merlin" does this a lot, presenting scenarios where Merlin is found out or Uther is incapacitated, only to finagle a way to get everyone back to square one again in the last ten minutes. They did permanently defeat a few recurring villains, like the sorceress Nimueh (Michelle Ryan), but the baddies just kept getting replaced.
In Series Three, however, we finally got payoff and moved closer to the endgame of "Merlin." Morgana not only fully came over to the dark side, but became the major antagonist of the series. Due to the influence of her evil half-sister Morgause (Emilia Fox), she got a lot campier too. Arthur built up his posse of future knights with the return of Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) and the introduction of Gwaine (Eoin Macken) and Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun). The romance between Arthur and Guinevere still can't be acknowledged because of Uther, but at least it's no longer unrequited. More classic Arthurian iconography like the Round Table and the Sword in the Stone made their first appearances. For the bulk of Series Three it still felt like the characters were going through the motions, and there were some pretty egregious filler episodes, but by the finale it's clear that the format of the show is in for some changes when it comes back in the fall.
The nice thing about British television series is that they usually know when to stop. The premise of "Merlin" isn't open-ended the way something like "Doctor Who" is, so I don't see the show being dragged out for more than another year or two. Compared to "Smallville," which is finally ending this Friday after a ten-year run, the story has played out much better so far as a result. They've also been good about referencing later events in the source mythos without cannibalizing them, so I can see the potential for a sequel series set in the early years of Arthur's reign. But then, considering how dark and tragic the Arthurian legends get, that's probably not a good idea. The appeal of "Merlin" has a lot to do with the lightness of its tone and the kid-friendly nature of its adventures. And compared to other takes on the material, like John Boorman's bloody "Excalibur" and the sexed-up new Starz "Camelot" series, it's a lot more accessible.
Now off to catch up on "Futurama." Happy watching!