Reviewer: Charity Bishop
British television series can be hit or miss with American audiences but some of them become immensely popular and a decision was made to test out programming on the general public on a non-cable network to see if the latest family fare from England would stick. Merlin takes all the legends of the knights of the round table and turns them on their head but for the most part is solid entertainment and certainly better than some of the alternatives. It's also less campy than its precursor, Robin Hood.
Magic has been outlawed in the kingdom of Camelot due to "grave offenses" by wizards and warlocks and so anyone with extraordinary gifts must remain hidden for fear of persecution and death. Young sorcerer Merlin (Colin Morgan) has come to Camelot at the insistence of his mother, who believes he will have a better life outside their impoverished village, but has difficulty not revealing his telekinetic abilities when faced with the bullies of the city, among them the arrogant Prince Arthur (Bradley James). Immediately getting off on the wrong foot with the heir to the throne does him no favors when the king's physician (and a former user of magic) Gaius (Richard Wilson) agrees to mentor him in the hope of further training his abilities. But his unique talent might be revealed when a resentful sorceress visits Camelot intending to have revenge for her mother's death.
While learning much from the old dragon that imprisoned beneath the castle until the "old ways" are reinstated, Merlin hones his skills, attempts to be a good valet to the noble Arthur, and is of interest to the two women in his life -- the hard-working servant girl Guinevere (Angel Coulby) and her mistress, the secretive and beautiful Morgana (McGrath). Woven throughout the first season are encounters with other characters that will become important in Arthur lore -- including a visit from a young peasant who wishes to become a knight (Lancelot), and a child with abnormal magical abilities (Mordred). I was not too impressed with the first couple of episodes. I didn't like their casting decisions all that much and thought Arthur was depicted as too much of a jerk, but after awhile he calmed down and made leaps toward becoming the noble majesty we know so well from various films and legends.
The cast are all very good but I do question their judgment in certain areas. The actress playing Gwen is likable enough but she doesn't seem to live up to the reputation Guinevere has of being the most beautiful woman in the kingdom... not to mention the fact that she is a servant. I'm not sure I like how much the legends have been changed to modernize and rejuvenate the material but on the flip side, Morgana is a stroke of brilliance. She is much under-used in the first half of the season but really comes into her own as the series continues and by the end is one of the most interesting characters. The costuming is not accurate but is so gorgeous and unique in kind of a "punk medieval" style that I don't mind. Certain of Morgana's gowns in particular are exquisite. My only real complaint is that the CGI leaves much to be desired and shows a limited budget, but since it is infrequent that fault can be overlooked.
Naturally, a series about the future great wizard of Camelot is going to have a lot of magic but Merlin rarely uses it to solve his problems. He instead shows creativity and ingenuity in creating solutions to the immense problems he encounters. But there is a lot of magic -- enchanted cups and shields, the introduction of the magical Excalibur, various muttered spells and telepathic abilities. Witches frequently walk in and out of their lives, mostly the vindictive Nimueh (Ryan). She's a great villainess that overshadows most of the season and we get to see a duel between her and Merlin in the finale that is quite impressive. None of the magic is realistic or particularly unsettling and the series is appropriate for children. There is occasional violence (mostly bloodless battle scenes and single combat in which men are stabbed; the occasional arrow through a back, horse accident, and snake bite) and one or two mild profanities. Nothing sensual is present apart from a couple of revealing costumes.
It might not be everyone's cup of tea and does at times seem aimed for a younger age group, but the writing is decent enough and the cast good enough that it is easy to sit back and enjoy it as something you will not have to fast-forward your way through. If you can stomach some changes to the legend in favor of a new approach, I think you will enjoy Merlin.