Judge Jim Thomas does not eat ham and jam and Spam a lot, but he has pushed a pram a lot.
Forget everything you know about Camelot…
Especially the part about Arthur being noble and all.
Arthurian legend is perfectly suited for episodic television: you have a lot of small stories that work well as standalone episodes; you've got longer quests that provide longer story arcs; and you've got a clear target at the end, be in establishing the kingdom or the Quest for the Grail. Unfortunately, the producers of Camelot squandered the opportunity and instead went for a faux-gritty soap opera with some nudity. While I applaud whatever nudity Eva Green chooses to bestow upon us mere mortals, the sad fact is this series is a mishmash of bad movie clichés, bad dialogue, and weak characterization. Starz pulled the plug after one season; after viewing Anchor Bay's Camelot: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray), it's not hard to see why.
Facts of the Case
In sixth century England, Uther Pendragon is but one of a host of petty lords, all hoping to unite the land. His relationship with his daughter Morgan (Eva Green, Casino Royale) is, shall we say, strained—so much so, in fact, that Morgan takes it upon herself to poison Uther so that she may have a go at the whole kingdom-building thing. The wily Merlin (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love), though, is about to disrupt her plans; years ago, Uther had a bastard son, whom Merlin whisked away to grow up as the son of Ector (Sean Pertwee, Event Horizon). Merlin is determined to see Arthur (Jaime Campbell Bower, Sweeney Todd) unite the fractured land. Morgan ensconces herself in Castle Pendragon, where she plots against Arthur, who finds himself stuck in the dilapidated Roman ruin of Camelot, trying to convince the land and himself that he has the right stuff.
Some minor spoilers.
It's as though the writers knew all the elements of the legend, but never quite understood how they work. For instance, while Tamsin Egerton is radiant as Guinevere, her character is set up for failure. She begins as the betrothed of Arthur's champion Leontes (Philip Winchester, Fringe), yet she has a quickie with Arthur right before her wedding—at which Arthur himself officiates; this love triangle undermines the inevitable triangle with Arthur and Lancelot (he doesn't not show up in this season, but he's referred to in some of the featurettes). I've heard of serial monogamists; is there such a thing as serial love triangles?
Then there's Arthur, who comes across as perhaps the weakest of all the main characters. When we first see him, he is seducing his (foster) brother Kay's girlfriend (such behavior is said to be a habit with him); then he goes after Guinevere, forcing you to wonder if his attraction to Guinevere is True Love, Twue Wuv, or merely True Lust (the smart money's on the latter). Arthur generally remains a callow, petulant, uninteresting figure—until the script demands that he be otherwise. Then he suddenly makes a stirring speech or makes the right choice. The problem is that these moments never arise out of who Arthur is, but rather out of plot necessity. The problem reaches its nadir in "The Battle of Bardon Pass," in which Arthur singlehandedly holds off a superior force by creating a series of booby traps worthy of Wile E. Coyote; we even get the requisite montage of him creating the traps, a la Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator.
Sadly, the cast is clearly capable of so much more. Joseph Fiennes plays Merlin as an intriguing combination of wizard and counselor, who functions more as Arthur's chief of staff than anything else (Fiennes envisioned the character as a cross between Obi-wan Kenobi and Donald Rumsfeld). Whether by happenstance or intent, Fiennes' Merlin looks freakishly like a young Christopher Lambert, particularly the brooding eyes. Merlin is driven by a single-minded vision, and the question in the back of your mind must always be, "just how far will he go to achieve his goal?" It's a particularly apt question: While Merlin may well have moral limits, Morgan has none. Eva Green is perfect for Morgan, exuding strength and resolve—but the writing for her character quickly descends into writhing-in-diaphanous-gown clichés, best illustrated by her excessive eyeliner, which gives her a perpetual glower. A problem for both characters is that the function and limits of magic are more than a little bit fuzzy.
Some bits of soapiness are managed a bit better. Against my better judgment, I found myself rooting for the budding romance between Merlin and Igraine simply because Fiennes makes Merlin's vision and self-imposed isolation so compelling. Claire Forlani does a decent job with the criminally underwritten part of Igraine—but she gets a showcase in "Igraine," when she is, shall we say, not herself. Sadly, she too falls victim to cliché. In "Homecoming," the moment Morgan says that she hates her stepmother Igraine because Igraine did nothing when Uther banished Morgan, you just know that the truth is different; sure enough, in "Reckoning," Igraine, having been fatally stabbed by Morgan, reveals that she had prevented Uther from killing Morgan outright. Ironic and clichéd; toss in Igraine's subsequent death scene with Merlin, you've got a bad writing trifecta.
Would that the writing had matched the disc. Camelot was shot in Ireland, and the MPEG-4 AVC encoded video wonderfully captures all forty shades of green and then some. In fact, all colors are vivid yet natural; the oversaturation that plagues many transfers is blessedly absent. Great detail, perhaps the only complaint could be that the video is so good that it betrays a lot of the CGI work used in and around Camelot. The TrueHD track is almost as good; at times sound effects are a bit overprocessed—too much echo in the great hall, for instance, but the surround field itself is well-defined, with action moving around all the room. Extras are light, with a number of character overviews, a haphazardly assembled blooper reel, and a couple of scene breakdowns.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At times, you get glimpses of what Camelot could have been. "Lady of the Lake," the episode in which Arthur gets Excalibur, is a clever deconstruction of legend making. In "Three Journeys," there's a lovely moment in which Merlin, who has become almost pathologically afraid of using his magic, performs a lovely bit of elemental magic to distract the injured Gawain as his dislocated shoulder is popped back into place.
In the end, it's just a mess, best typified by King Lot (James Purefoy, Rome), who says, "I am not a monster" immediately after slaughtering Arthur's foster mother right in front of him. Sorry, Lot, but your actions say otherwise. (By the way, Lot, you're also stupid, as you just stand there when Ector, mortally wounded, pulls out his knife and kills you in a manner swiped from the legend of Arther's killing of Mordred. Let go of the spear and step back, and you're still alive, idiot.) Similarly, the showrunners say they have a great vision for Camelot, but the episodes themselves suggest otherwise.
Bottom line: When the prospect of seeing Eva Green nude doesn't motivate you to keep watching, you have serious problems.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
Review content copyright © 2011 Jim Thomas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.