By ALEX PECHA
“Merlin” has been on the periphery of my “to watch” list for a while now, having heard about it occasionally online. The premise seemed simple: a telling of the Arthurian legend through the eyes of the titular Merlin instead of the usual viewpoint of Arthur or one of his knights. So I mostly expected an old man seeing the events of the well-known legend, as well as a generally upbeat attitude.
I tried watching it once, and was thrown off by the immediate execution of some random character because they used magic; ordered by King Uther who was played by Anthony Head, which was just extremely disorienting if you’re used to him playing a kind and somewhat dorky old librarian in “Buffy.” Then, to top it off, Merlin was a young man, no much older than I was at the time. I turned it off and put it back on the periphery of my “to watch” list indefinitely.
However, after recently completing my catch-up binge of “Game of Thrones” I was really looking for another fantasy show to watch while I did my homework. I mean sure, I still have to watch “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Westworld,” and much more; but I really wanted swords, fantasy and kings. I couldn’t see much else on my Netflix queue to watch in that regard and I’ve had a person in my life continuously talking about how great Merlin is, so I decided to give it another go and stick through it even if it was off putting at first.
I am so mad that I didn’t give this show a fair shake the first time, because I am in love.
Merlin follows the adventures of a young Merlin of Arthurian legend, and, as it turns out, his adventures with Arthur before he was even king. The twist is though that magic is outlawed in Camelot under the well-meaning but tyrannical Uther, so Merlin has to hide his magical gifts from all but a few while trying to protect the “Once and Future King”.
The show, especially in the earlier seasons, has an unmistakable 90’s feeling to it. This is a little confusing as the show came out in 2008. There is an element of cheese to it, which isn’t aided by the frankly terrible CGI for things like dragons and monsters. That said, I wound up finding that the “90s” feeling has a certain charm to it. As character relationships grow and change, you find yourself wrapped up in their friendships and rivalries, even if they’re done somewhat cheesily.
You legitimately care for these chunks of cheddar and swiss.
I think part of the strength comes from the strong forward momentum of the plot. While there are definitely filler episodes, there are only 13 episodes per season, and usually the last episode of each season is a huge two-part episode that dramatically changes the situation of the show. It’s even interesting how filler episodes help the plot; characters will often reference events in episodes that may have seemed like they kept the “status quo,” which is odd for a TV show.
There’s also the fact that the story and plot of the show are steeped in Arthurian legend. I’m not exactly an Arthurian scholar by any means but I read “The Once and Future King” and have watched/read more updated versions of the legends, so while I didn’t get all of the references to the original lore, I was impressed by just how many I did get and how many the show put in. The show goes out of its way to homage and honor the original source materials even as they adjust it to fit their show. From characters as popular as Lancelot showing up to more obscure parts of the legend such as Tristan and Isolde, Merlin delivers cameos and nods to the original lore that anyone of any level of Arthurian knowledge can enjoy.
I would also be remiss to not mention how weirdly good the fighting choreography is. I didn’t go into this show expecting the sword fights to be all that great, but the camera work and the work of the actors and stunt actors is surprisingly great. From the battles to the duels, the fights in Merlin carry surprising impact and are a joy to watch.
In the end though, what really drives the show is the simple fact that it is compelling. The stories, even though you know the outcome, are either fun or dramatic enough to keep your interest. Some episodes are silly and have plots about crazy goblins and some episodes are dramatic and deal with ideas about sacrifice for the later good, weighing the value of human life and confronting prejudice. These episodes are held up by consistently well written and fun characters portrayed by fantastic actors and actresses.
If you enjoy fantasy, if you enjoy Arthurian Legend, or you just enjoy fun and engaging television, you owe it to yourself to watch “Merlin.” While it may have some rough areas such as bad CGI and an off-putting first 30 minutes, “Merlin” makes up for its faults with engaging characters, great stories, surprisingly fantastic fight scenes and a charm that is somewhat hard to explain. So sit down, relax, and watch some cheesy and enjoyable fantasy television.