LOS ANGELES — Considering Chris Albrecht is a former HBO head, his first call at Starz, the new sword ‘n’ sorcery drama “Camelot,” should have been bulletproof.
It’s produced by Oscar-winning Graham King (“The Departed,” “The Aviator”), created and written by Michael Hirst (“The Tudors”) and Chris Chibnall (“Torchwood,” “Dr. Who”) and stars Joseph Fiennes (“Elizabeth,” “Shakespeare in Love”) as Merlin and smoky-eyed former Bond girl Eva Green as his archnemesis Morgan. Instead, this sexed-up, semi-humanized retelling of the Arthurian legend is possibly the worst reworking of a British legend since Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood.” And the folks of “Camelot” can’t even blame it on bad British accents, because the accents are all just fine.
As are the locations, the sets, the costumes and the rest of the fine cast. What’s not fine is the script, which lurks moodily when it should stride, smirks when it should sing and requires Merlin to say things such as “You don’t know what you’re messing with.” Also, not fine is this weedy, petulant rendering of Arthur. Jamie Campbell Bower may have “Twilight” cred but here, with his greasy locks and emotional vamping, but he seems more like the Once and Future Skater Kid than the Once and Future King.
Which, one supposes, is the point. Chibnall’s goal was a recasting of Western civilization’s most influential secular myth into an adult drama in which all the butchery, barbarian politics and hot sex on tallow-smeared sheepskin are just as present as the rolling mist and iconic sword (here trapped not only in rock but at the top of a waterfall). Fiennes’ Merlin is neither the Disneyfied graybeard nor the half-mad wizard of the John Boorman classic “Excalibur.” With shaven pate and narrowed eyes, he is more power broker than magician, a semi-mystical consigliore determined to create a king instead of a war lord.
Liberties are taken with the basic story, and though they may irritate the Arthurian purist, they are dramatically sensible — Morgan becomes the daughter (as opposed to step-) of a boorish King Uther Pendragon, whom she quickly dispatches from this life, using her skill as alchemist and shape-shifter. Morgan plans to inherit the throne, even if she is forced to share it with brutish neighbor King Lot (James Purefoy); to seal the deal, they have hot, talky sex that includes a laughable moment in which Morgan scratches Lot because, you know, this kitten has claws.
Meanwhile, Merlin retrieves Arthur, whom we have already met midcoitus with his brother’s girlfriend, foreshadowing both the theme of ill-considered romance and the suspension of disbelief required of the audience — anyone who thinks a woman would choose weasely Arthur over bonny Kay (Peter Mooney) will believe anything.
Although most of the time-honored hallmarks are present — the sword is retrieved, Lot is battled, the Merlin-Morgan love-hate relationship develops — others are turned on their heads. Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) shows up, but she’s engaged to Leontes, reversing the traditional love triangle. Meanwhile, Leontes, rather than Arthur, serves as pre-roundtable recruiter, his first draft pick being Gawain (Clive Standen), whom he lures out of early retirement with the promise of literacy.
It’s a nice touch, Leontes promising to teach Gawain to read, and “Camelot” is studded by promising moments — most of them involving Green, who is not only beautiful (and more than occasionally naked) but the only character allowed to do magic or acknowledge that she is in a mythical period drama.
The rest of the cast is left to reconcile its 21st century attitudes with all those swords and leather jerkins. Chibnall has said he envisioned a show in which the guys from “Friday Night Lights” were put into the Dark Ages, which turns out to be one of those ideas that looks much better on paper than on screen. Because the guys from “Friday Night Lights” aren’t just products of immunization, fluoridation, education, technology and a standard of hygiene that would have probably killed their Dark Age counterparts, they’re American, which means, among many other things, they have never lived outside a democracy.
Which is not just incongruous to the meaning of the Arthurian tale, it’s contradictory. Arthur and his roundtable were the first flickering of an egalitarian society. Despite the interesting twist of overt sibling rivalry, Chibnall seems to be making a blood and gore version of “The Princess Diaries.” Arthur seems more interested in romance than leadership or even survival, and Guinevere acts like she walked off the set of “Gossip Girl,” while Queen Igraine (Claire Forlani) claps her hands together and says “OK” before asking for the wedding garlands to be pulled a little higher.
In the middle of it stands Merlin, looking understandably irritated. Fiennes may be able to save things in the end, but three episodes in, a wizard who looks good in bondage but can’t foresee the sleeping potion in wine handed to him by a witch is just part of the problem.
When: 10 p.m. ET/PT Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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