We’re only two episodes in to season 4 of the BBC’s Merlin and I’m already experiencing the familiar nadir of my love-hate cycle for the show. By that, I mean when I hear that a new series is coming up, I convince myself it was never all that bad, and I should give it another go. Besides, Bradley James is gorgeous. So I get myself all excited, before being thoroughly disappointed when I actually watch an episode or two.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a fantastic production. I think the balance of emphasis on CGI, costume, make up and location really makes for gorgeous end product. The acting is great, and the directing is fantastic too – indeed, it’s these things that keep me coming back for more. The only thing that lets it down, according to the Guardian’s Daniel Martin, is the writing. And I kinda have to agree.
Bad writing is pretty common, because it’s easily overlooked. Bad producing is invisible but usually lethal, bad special effects look tacky, bad acting looks hilariously obvious while bad direction looks like Star Wars Episode 1. Especially if you’ve got good actors and reasonable (or better) production values, audiences will overlook plodding, functional dialogue or a trite concept. Just look at Avatar. Often, studio execs even favor a banal storyline, and are happy to skimp on getting good writers – thinking that the better caliber actors/director involved in the project will be able “make it work”. I have to say, even the dialogue doesn’t bother me so much in Merlin. The actors handle what might otherwise be clunky lines so well that you don’t even notice. However, the concept and plot are really what I find unavoidably irritating.
Firstly, it feels like they’ve just flicked through British mythology and picked out beings to act as Monster of the Week. Almost everybody who uses magic other than Merlin is therefore cast as a villain, making the assertion that “magic isn’t evil” rather hollow. That said, the show does feature benevolent Druids (which made me very happy), but as looming big-bad Mordred is a Druid, it remains to be seen how long this lasts. Secondly, and more importantly, the overarching plot and emotionally-driven characterisation of Merlin clash horribly. Instead of striking me as a believable, likeable young hero, Merlin comes across as weak; unable to make tough decisions if it means hurting those he loves.
Ultimately, I think Merlin ticks the “Saturday Night Fantasy Romp” box very well, but I feel it could be so much more. I just wish TV execs didn’t feel so compelled to fit to the formula – because the formula is getting old. Relying upon evil to provide tension clashes with the postmodern desire for realistic, “complicated” protagonists. Mythology, if it is to relevant, needs to be sincerely re-engaged with, not pillaged for characters. Utilizing tired plot devices like “keeping the magic secret” and “chosen ones” is just boring. Just once, I’d like a fantasy TV show with a plot more original than the impending Destruction of Everyone by Somebody Nasty, who must be fought by a Chosen One.