Review: Magical Beginnings for NBC’s Merlin

No spoilers.

Premieres Sunday at 8pm/7c on NBC with two episodes.
Settles into regular timeslot, next Sunday at 8pm/7c.

When you tune into the BBC/NBC series Merlin, you may immediately try to recall (one of the many versions of) the classic tales you once read as a child. Or perhaps seen the various adaptations on film and television, maybe even NBC’s Sam Neill led Merlin miniseries ten years (!) ago.

This wise old wizard guiding a young Arthur on the throne. Medieval swordfights, juicy love triangles, royal soap opera.

Well, put what you knew about the world of Camelot aside and get ready to be introduced to another, different, albeit equally engaging, version of kings and magic.

Merlin, which aired successfully in the UK on BBC One late last year, makes its American premiere on NBC. And it might very well need magic to stay alive, at least on American shores (a second “series” has been ordered in the UK). NBC attempted ambitious “epic” dramas this season and failed (fall’s entertaining Crusoe and this spring’s excellent Kings).

It even had a series entitled Young Arthur in development a few years ago starring Paul Wesley (at the time, of American Dreams, this Fall on the CW’s Vampire Diaries) and the always awesome Clive Swift (Keeping Up Appearances). But they passed on it. And this was back during a time when American television audiences were probably more receptive of a drama like that.

These days, it seems like American audiences are looking for the familiar when surfing the channels. New, but familiar.

And with Merlin, it may be new and fresh, but maybe not all that familiar, in many aspects. That might not be good news for its chances of American survival. Otherwise, the series is able to stand on its own and make its own case.

Some characters are familiar. There’s Merlin (Colin Morgan) and Arthur, still a prince (Bradley James), Guinevere (Angel Coulby) and later on, an appearance by Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera, Heroes).

But as characters, they couldn’t be any more different. For one thing, Merlin and Arthur are roughly the same age, which gives the whole Arthurian legend a different feel off the bat. Instead of the old bearded dude and the younger King, here’s two guys that could be best buds, looking out for one another, having each other’s backs.
Meanwhile, Guinevere, or Gwen, is a servant girl, not royalty, and serves Morgana, who was taken in by King Uther and holds a secret admiration for the young Prince.

There’s also Gaius (Richard Wilson), a physician of Camelot and the one serving as mentor to young Merlin, and one of the few people who know his secret.

That secret being, of course, his magical powers. In this version of Camelot, magic is banned and only one dragon remains as a prisoner deep below the castle. It is this dragon (voiced by John Hurt) that pushes Merlin and tells him of his “destiny” in Camelot.

Merlin is very much the story of Merlin coming into his own. What hand did he have in Arthur becoming King of Camelot. Sort of like Smallville is to Superman, Merlin is to the oft-revised and interpreted Arthurian legends, and the show’s producers acknowledge that inspiration.

What Merlin is able to do is to take a well-known story and provide a new layer, a completely different side of a story that one may think has been told enough, but really has so much more left to tell.

The series is almost like a breath of fresh air, something different, yet vaguely familiar at the same time which is something that people just might want to get attached to.

Visually, the series looks beautiful shot on location, and as a British period production, you’d expect nothing less.

The cast is great and the story moves briskly as there is rarely a dull moment.
One thing Merlin is consistently, is fun. And these days, a good, fun hour of television is hard to come by.

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