Blightyvision: “Merlin” Series 4

Created by Julian JonesJulian MurphyJohnny CappsJake Michie
Starring John HurtColin Morgan and Bradley James

After catching up to “Merlin” in time to be ready for the new series, I skulked around listening to fandom buzz just to see what other people thought of it.  I don’t see it as a guilty pleasure so much as a casual fun watch.  As I mentioned previously, I’m a bit of an Arthurian nut, and I knew coming into even the first series that I’d have to throw any preconceptions and college concentrations to the wind and just watch for giggles.  Meanwhile, it has a very devoted die-hard following, and though I avoided treading into the inevitable srs bzns deep end, I could see that once Series 4 started up, things got a bit more “real” for the fans I was eyeing.  Which is fair, as this series does get more srs bzns overall.

Up until now, “Merlin” has been playing around on the outskirts of the legends, tossing bits and pieces around enough to be entertaining while filling in the rest with a sort of “fandom”-y style of drama.  This year, that’s all still there, yes.  But it’s drawing closer and closer to what we’re actually familiar with, which actually feels a bit odd.  One of “Merlin”‘s safety nets ’til now is that it’s been just far enough off that they can muck around without treading on Sir Thomas Malory’s fingers and riling up people like me.  Then again, waiting four years to actually get to that point has served them well.  Not only are the younger actors a bit more experienced now, but they’ve set up their version of the story universe to the point that any similarity to the original feels more like an Easter egg than a field for comparison.

I’m not going to be a bad girl and give anything away, because “Merlin” has a fandom and not all of them watch on the night.  What can I say about the direction it takes?  Well, we lose some characters in ways that were bound to happen, we gain some characters (both bringing them back from earlier series and tossing in new iterations of characters from the legends), and Merlin gets cooler.  Like, significantly cooler.  The show is his, and Colin Morgan (who these days looks to me a bit like a slightly less angular Benedict Cumberbatch) has been holding his own very nicely.  This year, though, he gets a stretch, and a stretch I personally adore.  I won’t wreck it, but that’s not so much over it being a spoiler as it is just being more fun to see for yourself.  The scenes where he gets to be … well, a little more Merlin-y, I guess … are in my opinion some of his best work, both because it’s funny and because he does it unexpectedly well.

The majority of the young(ish) cast, not just Morgan, really are growing as actors.  James only has so much to work with — he’s still an insensitive git who occasionally learns the meaning of responsibility and social graces — but he does what he can with what he’s got.  Meanwhile, Nathaniel Parker (TV’s Inspector Lynley) as Agravaine adds a bit of balance to the cast that Morgause didn’t quite bring.  Katie McGrath as Morgana appears to be enjoying her new-found straight-up villainy with no apology, and you can’t really blame her.  The only actress who seems to be as she’s been is Angel Coulby as Gwen — not necessarily a bad thing, as she’s always been good, but she’s given a lot more Gwenevere-y things to deal with this year and I’d been hoping to see a level-up to her as well.

All that said, “Merlin” is still not a show to watch if you want character evolution.  Relationships evolve; abilities evolve; Arthur evolves vaguely as a character solely because the plot won’t move on unless he does.  But this is not a show about personal growth.  That said, it only occasionally seems to want to be, but it only does so in vaguely Aesop-ish ways that most people — mainly Arthur — will likely soon forget.  I honestly don’t know if that’s bad, and it’s really not something I noticed until I stopped to think about it.  It’s plot- and event-driven, and relationship-driven.

There is apparently a fifth series in the works, which is good, considered the end of the last episode sort of Game of Thrones-ed us.  Considering how safe they’ve been playing things until now, and how close they’re getting to playing in the Arthurian sandbox proper, I’ll be interested to see what direction they go.  My only fear is a repeat of the final series of “Robin Hood,” where they wig themselves out with canon manipulation and try to get heavy-handed to fix it.  If they keep dancing along the line right where they are, and give their actors the same (if not more) opportunities to have fun, it may well remain as casually enjoyable as it has been ’til now.

Don’t mess it up, children.

The fourth series of “Merlin” is now running on Syfy.  And yet, while the audience can handle this, they’ve still remade a different perfectly serviceable British TV show.  You can’t explain that.

Posted on January 12, 2012 at 01:00 by Kara Dennison · Permalink
In: Columns, Television: British and Canadian · Tagged with: , , , , ,