The BBC’s latest Robin Hood series is also the most recent in a long line of modern re-imaginings of the Sherwood legend for the screen. Film and television representations of Robin and his band of merry men have ranged from the epic (The Adventures of Robin Hood) to the humorous (Robin Hood: Men in Tights). The problem with this television version, never more apparent than in its third season, is that it can’t decide which of the aforementioned camps it wants to be part of.
This season picks off where the last one left off. Robin (Jonas Armstrong) and company have returned to England from the Holy Land, where they’ve just witnessed Maid Marian’s murder at the hands of her former beau, Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage from Spooks). Robin, after getting an even hipper haircut than ever before, declares he’s done with his fight to keep the Sheriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen) from helping overthrow King Richard, preferring to take revenge on behalf of his dead wife instead. But as Robin is kind of a stand-up guy, this doesn’t last for long and he is soon back in the game, even more determined to thwart the Sheriff and bring freedom to the poor local villagers.
With Marian six-feet-under and Djaq and Will Scarlet having decided to raise a family somewhere a little safer than Sherwood, there are a couple of holes in the Merry Men’s roster of bumbling freedom fighters, which are soon filled by Kate (Joanne Froggatt) – a feisty peasant girl – and Brother Tuck (David Harewood). Flying in the face of traditional portrayals, Tuck is here presented as a cross-between Azeem from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and that guy who was President President Palmer on 24 and also does those Allstate commercials in the U.S.. Another newcomer is Isabella (Lara Pulver), a beautiful damsel in distress who has mysterious connections to Robin’s enemies. The bad guys get some new allies too, including the long-heard-about but never-before-seen Prince John, portrayed by Toby Stephens as a psychotic, petulant man-child.
Most of this season involves the same stuff the previous seasons did: every episode the gang tries to foil one of the Sheriff’s or Prince John’s plans, which generally means they have to come up with some elaborate plan to sneak into the castle and steal something or rescue someone from an Austin Powers style execution, the kind which never fails to give Robin more than enough time to free one of his sweating allies. How any of Robin’s posse manages to get captured when the Sheriff’s men prove themselves incapable of triumphing in basic hand-to-hand combat every week is a mystery, but it doesn’t really matter because, much like every other season, there is no chance of anyone getting killed before the final few episodes, when the stakes are finally raised.
As a bridge to a possible fourth season, amongst a few shifts of allegiance that leave a former enemy working for Robin and a former ally operating under Prince John, we find out that Robin and Guy are connected to a rascally fellow named Archer (Clive Standen). Archer seems destined to take over for Robin if there is another season, given that Jonas Armstrong has announced that he is leaving the show. The storyline gives Robin a decent send-off, but makes it obvious that he won’t be coming back.
The main problem with this season is that it features the same weird mix of bad humor and bad drama that has defined the show from the get-go. In many ways Robin Hood recalls Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena Warrior Princess, as they are all low-budget homages to the swashbuckling epics of yesteryear. But where those earlier shows spent most of their time reveling in the campiness of getting a bunch of beautiful people to dress up in leather and battle poorly-CGIed monsters, Robin Hood seems determined to take itself seriously at all costs. The Sheriff as played by Allen is meant to be comical, obviously, with his hammy rants and exaggeratedly villainous postures, but Robin looks at him as a grave and terrible danger, as he does most things. Robin himself is the kind of hero only pre-adolescent boys idolize: earnest, intense and admired by men as much as he is desired every woman he comes into contact with. But with other portrayals like Disney’s classic animated film or the delightfully subversive earlier BBC series Maid Marian and her Merry Men at their disposal, even youngsters have better Robin Hood options to explore.
I suppose Robin Hood does offer a few bright spots. The show may be a low-budget BBC production filmed on the cheap in Eastern Europe, but the cinematography is decent and the forest the outlaws live in is lovingly captured, the warm-sunlight and arboreal colors keeping the visual tone from becoming overly-bleak and grey.
Also, while the usual episode-specific plots may all be lazy rip-offs of already overly-repeated film motifs and most of the characters may be two-dimensional recreations of good-guy or bad-guy stereotypes played by thespians who think over-the-top facial expressions are the most important ingredient in any actor’s arsenal, there are some memorable protagonists. Joe Armstrong, as Robin cohort Alan A Dale, continues to be the most likable bloke on-screen, largely thanks to his relatively low-key performance, and when he meets with tragedy at the season’s end, it’s genuinely sad. Guy and the Sheriff are yet again the most enjoyable pair to watch trade verbal blows (and at a couple of points, physical ones), due to the relatively complex differences between their motivations in serving Prince John. The Prince himself is an interesting character, and his arrival in Nottingham makes Robin’s choice to try and protect the throne of England by leading a few petty criminals against a minor bureaucrat in a small, rural part of the Midlands a little less ridiculous.
On the other hand, the writers still insist on inventing unconvincing obstacles that prevent Robin from just taking out the Sheriff and his master with a few swift arrows in the back (“But that could lead to civil war!” Robin exclaims. As opposed to the ineffective but frequently armed-reprisal-provoking guerrilla-war they already have going). Robin’s politics – a weird mix of conflict-prevention, wealth-distribution promotion, Hezbollah-style militia-sponsored social outreach, and absolute monarchism – still make no sense, but I guess that doesn’t matter when he doesn’t do much, besides occasionally embarrassing the Sheriff in public, to significantly further his cause.
The DVD set comes with a few extras, including a couple of previews of Season Three which will be useless to the owners of this collection, given that they will probably have just finished watching the season when they decide to look at the special features. More illuminating are the video diaries filmed by a couple of the new actors, including one in which Clive Standen reveals his shocking past as a child actor who played Little John’s deer-poaching son, Wolf, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I bet he never thought he’d see the Robin Hood name be used for such a lazily-planned cash-grab again but unfortunately he, and the rest of us, have found one.