Sunday, 14 July 2013

TV Series Review: Merlin (2008)

Title: Merlin (TV Series 2008)
Creators: Julian Jones, Jake Michie, Johnny Capps, Julian Murphy
Original broadcast: 2008-2012
Series length: 5 seasons, comprising 13 x ~45 minute episodes per season
Status: Complete
Classification: PG
Genre: Historical fantasy, Family, Action/Adventure, Comedy

Man. Where do I even begin?

This show. This show. I invested five years of my life in this show and what started out for me as light-hearted squee morphed into some sort of rabid hate-watch towards the end. The finale made me so mad that instead of sleeping I spent a night rolling angrily around in bed. When I finally fell asleep, I woke up the next day, still mad.

So yeah. If you’re looking for a rant, you’ve come to the right place.

(Review behind the cut. Warnings for foul language and major spoilers, including the finale. For those who haven’t seen the show but are thinking about it, they’re the sort of spoilers you’d want to know about before you decide to watch. Trust me.) 

The Premise

King Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head) abhors magic and has outlawed its use in all the land. Merlin (Colin Morgan), a young wizard, arrives in Camelot to stay with his uncle Gaius (Richard Wilson), the court physician. He must learn to control his talents or else risk death. Because of hijinks, Merlin becomes manservant to Prince Arthur (Bradley James). In this version of the myth, Merlin and Arthur are about the same age and their epic bromance lies at the heart of the show. Morgana (Katie McGrath) is introduced as Arthur's flirty, rebellious not-sister, and Gwen (Angel Coulby), in a surprise twist, is Morgana's sweet, adorkable maid. At the beginning of Season One, Gwen has a crush on Merlin.

The main cast of Merlin. From left to right:
Gwen (Angel Coulby), Morgana (Katie McGrath),
Gaius (Richard Wilson), Merlin (Colin Morgan),
Arthur (Bradley James) and Uther (Anthony Head).

The Pros

It’s an interesting set-up, if you don't mind the anachronism stew and butchering of Arthurian legend. The cast, by and large, are loveable, and the bantering between the characters brings a great sense of fun to the show. Merlin is essentially a weekly adventure series with a few joke episodes thrown in, which makes it easy to follow and dip in and out of. It’s kinda silly and cheesy, the sort of thing you can watch with your kids, I suppose, at least until all the death kicks in…

For the fannish types out there, you can basically ship anyone you want and find some sort of justification for it. As crazy as parts of the fandom are (were?), this show has spawned some truly excellent fic, which is a joy in itself.

The bromance, however, is easily the best part of Merlin. The interactions between sensitive, cheeky Merlin and noble boofhead Arthur are a large part of the show's appeal. There's a lot to like about their relationship, which encompasses physical comedy and bantering as well as heartfelt moments where they show their trust and respect for one another.

Also, there’s a bunch of shirtless knights.

The Knights of the Round Table, comprising (L-R) Sir Gwaine,
Sir Lancelot, Sir Leon, Prince Arthur, Sir Percival and Sir Elyan.
The ladies of Camelot (Population: 2) are spoilt for choice!

The Cons

The crux of the show’s problems is this: while the writers set up some interesting character arcs and conflicts (such as Morgana’s slide into evil, Gwen’s eventual romance with Arthur and the eventual return of magic to Camelot), they seem reluctant to actually, you know, write these things. Consequently, what we get is many fillery monster-of-the-week type episodes and then sudden jumps in plot and characterisation (forward, backward, sideways, twirling) depending on where the overarching plot needs things to be.

Basically, you have two choices when it comes to character development: shitty or none.

Morgana gets the worst of it. She goes from being flirty step-sibling (S1) to troubled girl (S2) to moustache twirling villain (S3-5) – who either smirks (S3) or sneers (S4-5) every five seconds – all without any sort of believable, human transition. She’s also suddenly Arthur's half-sister after the writers cut out the flirting. Gwen doesn’t really get to do or be anything unless she needs to fulfil some sort of plot function.

In most episodes, Arthur insults Merlin only to reveal at the end that Merlin is a valued friend. As you can tell, this doesn't quite work when it happens in nearly every single episode. It sort of, you know, undermines all the character and relationship development that happened beforehand, if you can stretch your memory back to say, last week.

On that note, pretty much every episode has this formula: Problem arises -> Problem can only be fixed by magic -> Arthur somehow becomes unconscious -> Merlin fixes the problem with magic -> Problem solved.

I can only assume that Arthur develops brain damage from all those knocks on the head, because seriously, there is no other explanation for why he is such a DUMB ASS, particularly in the later seasons, particularly as regards…

The Fuck You Cake

The magic reveal. Oh my god. So being in Camelot, Merlin has to hide his magic from Arthur. It's a source of major tension set up from the very first episode of Season One. For maximum awesomeness, you would expect the magic reveal to happen maybe at the start of Season Two or Three, so you have a whole season to explore the implications. But no. I had hoped, at first, that Arthur would discover Merlin’s secret, and there’d be all this angst and stuff about how he’s torn between his friend/what is right and his father/the law. But then Giles dies in Season Four. Hmm, okay, so the biggest obstacle to the magic reveal is gone. Maybe this can still work. Maybe Gwen can find out or something, and then there’d be angst between the three of them? But no, that doesn’t happen either. So when does the magic reveal happen? Well, it happens in the fucking series FINALE. Oh my god. I cannot express how much this annoyed me. It makes everyone look like a moron since Merlin ALWAYS SAVES THE DAY WITH MAGIC. ALWAYS. Worse, there seems to be no good reason for the reveal, other than because it’s the last episode ever. Creator Julian Murphy has said that this was intentional, since they didn’t want to remove the tension and humour caused by Merlin’s secret life. While this is understandable, the whole thing becomes ridiculous when literally years pass without anyone finding out, making the entire population of Camelot (save Gaius) look wilfully, irredeemably stupid. Sick of all this nonsense after Season Three, I mentally screamed for a magic reveal during every episode of Season Four; in Season Five, I screamed out loud. The lack of development, especially after so long, makes things repetitive and frustrating. All in all, it’s perhaps the worst case of arc fatigue I’ve seen in a series – the fact they had a five year plan makes it worse. 

That said, the actual reveal itself was pretty emotional and heart-wrenching. Finally, after all this time, we fans (those of us left, anyway) get what we want. So, at least there was a reveal and we got to see Arthur's reaction before...

The Icing on the Fuck You Cake

...Arthur dies. Dafuq? I mean, fine, he can die, but he hasn't even achieved anything yet. Albion is not united and magic has not returned to the land (as promised). Where was the Golden Age? And seriously, he dies just after having found out about Merlin's magic? Greatest King of All Time my ASS. So at the end of this mostly fun/happy show – which is why people watched it in the first place – we have this major downer ending… which doesn't even make sense! To rub salt in your wounds, we then get a cut to Merlin as an old man hobo/hipster in modern times... still waiting for Arthur to return. Great! The only good thing to come from this whole debacle is the theory that Gwen (who is now Queen) is the one who unites Albion and so on – in other words, Arthur’s greatest contribution to the kingdom is… Gwen. Though, if that’s the case, wouldn’t you rather bring her back in Albion’s time of greatest need? Just sayin’.

Morgana/Evil!Smirk OTP 5EVA!!!

The Cherry on top of the Icing on the Fuck You Cake

Morgana’s death is super anti-climactic.
Oh, and Gwaine dies too.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I’m glad this show has finished, if only to put me out of my misery and to allow the cast to move onto bigger and brighter things. If there is a poster child for wasted potential, this show is it. We have a wonderful cast (special love for Colin Morgan) and an original set-up, both squandered because of what I can only assume was fear: fear of disturbing the status quo, fear of making hard decisions. There were so many things – things like Merlin’s questionable morality and the breakdown of Morgana and Gwen’s friendship – that could have been explored, but weren’t. The series begins with a light-hearted tone, hinting at depth and angst to come. However, when things get darker and edgier, the show doesn’t fully commit. Situations change drastically but characters either remain unchanged or transform into different creatures entirely. The result, in the end, feels half-baked and illogical. Unless you’re happy to watch this show casually, it’s highly frustrating and rage-inducing. As you can tell, I have a massive love-hate relationship with this show, and kept watching it long after my anger outweighed my enjoyment. If it had just been mediocre, I wouldn’t have minded so much. What hurts most about Merlin is not what it is, but what it could have been.

Alex’s Rating: 2.5/5
(Edited to add: I'm probably being unfair here, but the memory of this show is too painful)

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