03 April 2011

TV Series: Camelot

Camelot on Starz  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1672189/

Update: 2 July 2011: Per this article  Starz has decided to not renew Camelot for another season. The series has ended.  A few more details here.

Season 1 summary:

The season opener, comprised of episodes 1 and 2, told me two things. This show has a decent cast, settings, good production values, and looks to be entertaining.  It also told me that although the stories were going to be Arthurian-legend based, they were going to rewrite the legend in some ways.  The first two episodes showed a lot of promise for an engaging and entertaining season, but by episodes three and four there seemed to be a downward shift that continued through the middle of the season. A shift to fits of primetime soap-opera stylings with little bits of engaging story. The season finale felt a step above the middle of the season.

Early stand-out characters were Joseph Finnes as Merlin and Eva Green as Morgan le Fay.  Honestly they made the show work through its first season. Jamie Campbell Bower's young king Arthur was played a little inconsistently. But I haven't figured out if that was due to writing and direction or the actor's fault. I'm thinking it's a bit more of the former. The rest of the supporting cast did well acting what was expected of them, you can't really blame them for the writing.

I noticed that production quality seemed to wane a little in the later episodes of the season, probably due to budget concerns. Just little things, sometimes in episode extras casting, new locations set dressing.  Places started feeling smaller. Villages felt dropped in a location instead of organically grown there over time. Even the battle over the pass in the final two season episodes was small. Not armies, just 20 or 30 guys at most. The whole kingdom was endangered by 20 or 30 guys at one location? Yeah - had to be budget really cutting in to what they could do.

But those are all superficial things I noticed of the run of the first season.  The core, the story, that's a whole other thing.  When they stuck with Arthurian legend, or came up with some great variations to the original mythology (Sword in the Stone, Lady of the Lake), the show does fine. When pitting Morgan against Merlin (specifically) and Arthur's throne (her bigger goal) the show does great. The Arthur-Guenivere-Leontes love triangle thing - that just sucked. I realize the writers were trying to show the beginnings of Camelot, its promises to be the new center for everyone and the new way of running a country and all that.  I know what they wanted to do, but it just didn't come off so well this first season. The main story arc of contention (Morgan-Merlin) went so well during the season, the secondary story arcs not so much, and the filler stuff really felt like filler.

This darn show - starting off promising, irritating me throughout its mid-season with its soap opera wheel spinning laced with hints occasional good story bits, then winding up with a decent enough season finale. By decent enough I mean in comparison to itself, not other shows.  One of those "it's the best show at 11pm EDT on Friday Night on Starz" things.
I think that Camelot being aired during the same period of time as Game of Thrones probably really negatively impacted my view of the show. In comparison Game of Thrones was so much more engaging, so much better produced, so much tighter writing and consistency. Camelot probably would have looked a lot better if its run wasn't near another medieval-styled fantasy show.

Yeah - I will watch Season 2 if it comes about. The show is entertaining enough. There's something that compels me to keep watching despite its issues.
Perhaps I'm too optimistic? Too needy for dark aged Arthurian/Camelot themes?

Nah - if I was too needy for an Arthurian TV series I would have continued to watch "Merlin" after the first two episodes.  I'm going on the record to say that "Camelot" is a better series than "Merlin" - only because "Camelot" actually stays in the same ballpark as Arthurian legend.  "Merlin" is on a whole different planet.

I'll give Camelot another chance if it returns for a second season.  Maybe they'll find more solid footing during season 2 development.  I'm hoping they jump a year or two in time to get past the "establishing of Camelot" growing pains, and thus give themselves for a little room to reboot some of the weaker aspects of the series.

2 July 2011: Nevermind. Series got cancelled. You already saw the note at the top of the post.  Bummer in some ways, I would've watched it. But then again its cancellation isn't going to leave a hole in my life either.

Meanwhile the series Merlin, which has no ties to Arthurian legend except for series character names, continues on. What can we learn from that? I dunno. Probably nothing important.

Season 1 notes as posted during its run:

As the World's Worst Movie Reviewer in the World I don't get access to the pre-screening feeds that real critics have access to, thus I'll update this post from time to time as I get more episodes under my belt.

The first giant chunk of text was written after I watched the series premier - back when I was really optimistic about the series.
Further down the page I have added bits and pieces based on later episodes in the series.  Those sections are led with an "**Edit: x episodes in" type wording.

** Series premier afterthoughts
Everyone has probably seen some version or other of the King Arthur mythology, be it Disney's 1963 animated classic "The Sword in the Stone", or 1981's "Excalibur", or the TV series "Merlin", or any number of other tellings of the story. Well, "Merlin" probably is a poor example because about the only thing it has in common with Arthurian legend is they took the character names from the stories, which is why I stopped watching it after the first couple of episodes. Couldn't stand it.  I didn't mention Monty Python and the Holy Grail on purpose - that's in a class by itself and untouchable.

Now admittedly the Starz version of the Arthurian legend in "Camelot" has been rebooted as well - changes to Arthur's relationship with his adoptive family, a change to the whole "sword in the stone" biz, Morgan le Fay is the daughter of Uther's first wife instead of Igraine, Igraine didn't have other children besides Arthur, and probably many more I won't notice because I'm no scholar of Arthurian legend.  But I didn't particularly mind these retellings. Historically Arthurian legend has been told and retold with shuffling of people and relationship changes, pick any one legend and it differs from its precedent. Thus Starz is just one retelling in a long line of retellings, revolving around the core of the legend. Plus the retooling of the myth pares down the number of players some in comparison to the seemingly massive number of interconnections of folks in the historical legends.

The reason I didn't mind the retelling of the sword in the stone bit of the story is I could understand the purpose behind the change. Instead of Excalibur in a stone in a field where everyone could see, the sword is The Sword of Mars which has been stuck in rock at the top of a waterfall for hundreds of years. Same business though - the prophecy states if you pull out the sword you're fit to rule the Britons. Arthur has to climb up the cliff to get the sword, a feat nobody has been able to accomplish and many died trying.  Of course Arthur makes it up there, figures out how to pull out the sword, predictably falls into the pool of water below, and survives after Leontes saves him from drowning. But that isn't what is important. What is important is with this process, not only are the locals impressed by Arthur doing the seemingly impossible and ready to pledge loyalty as a result, Merlin uses the exercise to mold Arthur. By Arthur completing the task, he now begins to believe he really is destined to be the King of all Britons; the path Arthur takes in the future is shaped on the confidence he gains. He is convinced. His character now has even more impetus to accept the mantle bestowed upon him.
There has been no indication of the Lady in the Lake yet. Let's see where the season takes it.

Thus far I like the casting, especially the way Eva Green plays Morgan le Fay. She plays Morgan as a hungry, conniving, fearless, strong, terrible force to be reckoned with. Joseph Finnes brings his bombastic touch to the role of Merlin. Some might complain about including Finnes, especially on the heels of his recent too-huge-for-the-role performance in Flash Forward, but I think Finnes plays a good Merlin in this way. Merlin isn't supposed to be like normal people anyhow, and Finnes clearly places Merlin outside the norm established by the surrounding cast.  I find his performance a healthy and complimentary contrast with the measured and finessed performance Green portrays in Morgan. Morgan and Merlin should be contrasting characters, and I am waiting to see how similar they become as the series unfolds. They're both trying to manipulate control of Briton: Morgan for herself, Merlin through Arthur, and both have sorcery at their disposal to influence the outcome.

Considering that Merlin can see the future, he knew Uther was going to be poisoned.  He didn't rush to Uther's side to save him, he went there to get Uther to sign the kingdom over to Arthur and recognize Arthur as his son.  Merlin saw that the best future of Briton was for Uther to be out of the way. He allowed Morgan to be his unwitting pawn in his own agenda.  Hopefully the series continues to mine Merlin and Morgan against each other.
But, seriously, Morgan le Fay kicks ass and is already my favorite character of this series.

I don't know if they'll go into the story line of Morgan seducing Arthur to spawn Mordred. It would make sense if they did, concerning their establishing of Morgan as quite the sorceress. As this telling already has Arthur knowing Morgan is his half-sister, I could easily see them have Morgan transform herself to pull off the seduction, paralleling what Merlin did with Uther.

As for the kid playing Arthur, Jamie Campbell Bower, I'm on the fence at the moment. He looks rather young and spindly, and even Merlin comments that the kid's hands are a little too dainty for his kingly role.  The kid protested his situation, seemed unsure of the task before him, yet stepped right into his role as King in public settings as if he already owned the throne. He seemed to naturally give exactly appropriate public speeches without hesitation, which felt a little off considering he was just dragged across country and thrust onto the throne with zero preparation. I did get more used to him as the show progressed, so there may be hope for him. It is possible the show may be wanting to concentrate more on his growth after he takes the throne than watching a kid deal with finding out he was adopted, is the blood heir to the throne, watch his adoptive mother killed, take the Sword of Mars from the cliff, and fight off the first challenge to his throne, see his adoptive father die, all in the space of a week.  That's one big week for a kid from the boonies. Hopefully he can pull off the transformation into a commanding presence.  In the premier episode he seemed dwarfed next to King Lot.

Guinevere - well we didn't see much of her, thus far her job is to look pretty. Actually we saw all of her, naked, but that wasn't what I was talking about. Arthur dreams of her, Merlin spies on Arthur's dream, the non-dream Guinevere chances upon Arthur on the beach (similar to his dream, only clothed), Arthur falls for her, then we find she's betrothed to Leontes, the very knight that already saved Arthur's life once and quickly became one of Arthur's most trusted allies.  I suppose as more episodes come out we'll get to find out if she's more than just a pretty plot driver.  There was so much going on in the premier episode there wasn't room to stuff more of her in too.

We are treated to a little insight into an aspect of Arthur's character when we first meet him, an insight that should be foretelling when it comes to the betrothed Guinevere issue.  When we first meet Arthur he is nailing a girl that his brother Kay had relationship interest in. Even though he knows that's bad form, he doesn't seem to have a sense of not boinking the gal that's in a relationship with someone you trust.  As Guinevere is betrothed to Leontes we're set up for some love triangle-type drama to unfold in the future, because we know from legend that Arthur has to have Guinevere at his side.  Just one of those drivers of the machine that is Camelot.

Two other cast members, James Purefoy as King Lot and Sean Pertwee as Ector, lasted disappointingly too short a time in the series. Both are fine actors and will be missed. 

The sets and locations are sort of in the middle ground between gritty and "hollywood-pretty gritty".  Sort of like the middle ground between Deadwood-style old west towns and John Wayne movie-style.  But so far they've been effective.  Costuming and props seem appropriate.

There are hints of sorcery. Like in the story of how Arthur was born of Merlin changing Uther's appearance so he could rape Arthur's mother Igraine, in hints that Merlin may have been around a lot longer than people should be, Merlin's spying on dreams, and in flashes of the past/future that Merlin has. We get more sorcery in the tools used by Morgan le Fay to infiltrate her father Uther's castle and kill him, and the dark forces she is consorting with to take the throne for herself.  I'm hoping these aspects continue to factor into the series without getting obnoxiously cartoonish.  The subtle portrayal used so far works in the framework of the series. I hope it stays that way instead of fluctuating between steampunky pseudoscience or devolving into CGI-heavy lightshows.

I liked the premier episode. Hopefully the series continues on to have strong stories, strong intrigue, strong performances. And I hope that it continues to improve, much like Spartacus continued to improve as the series matured. I have no idea where in Arthurian legend Camelot plans to go, at this point I look forward to find out. I also like that the series has a dark feel to it. I suspect the Starz series will pick and choose bits from various legends and modify them to fit their story arcs as needed.  Hopefully it stays dark with drama, consistent in character actions and motivations, conflict arcs intertwined with planned grand arcs and doesn't meander about aimlessly week-to-week. And, if as the season plays out it goes into a death spiral or something I'll call that out. But if the premier is any indication this series should be entertaining.

**Edit: after Four episodes in
Okay - the show is kindof wavering between serious and borderline camp.  I think Joseph Finnes and Eva Green understand the show is to be somewhat fantastical - and they're doing a great job. I don't know if Jamie Campbell Bower is in the same headspace as them. Either that or he's supposed to be seriously whiny/bratty.

- Merlin didn't know Morgan poisoned Uther ahead of time. He must've just known Uther was gonna die and was prepared with the paperwork. Merlin was surprised when he found out Morgan did the deed.

- So far Guenivere meets Arthur on a beach, meets him as King Arthur at Arthur's coronation celebration, sexes him up, then marries Leontes.  Love-triangling has commenced. Arthur's being a whiny bitch about her marrying off, Guenny is unconvincingly telling him she's happy and he should leave her alone.
- Merlin got his magic on - using fire to grab a swordsmith and fry him, then using ice to walk across water and accidentally drown said swordsmith's daughter. Then we get to see Merlin make up the "Lady in the Lake" myth to cover what really happened. I actually liked that. Nice twist - and furthers my suspicion that Merlin has an agenda and is using Arthur to carry it out, to the point of inventing mythologies to convince everyone else that Arthur is the chosen king.

So - best way to watch this is sit back and let it happen. Don't over think things, don't try to make the show into anything it is not. It's entertainment. It isn't a historical drama. It is a dark-ages/medieval era retelling of mythology. And thus far still trying to settle into it's 'groove'.

** Edit: 7 episodes in
the show is somewhat inconsistent in its progression. Sometimes it's moving forward quite well, other times it requires some patience waiting for it to move forward again.  Arthur's character exposes moments of great wisdom and hints at one day achieving legendary King Arthur greatness only to slap himself down by his youth and inexperience. The contrasts are stark between the two Arthurs - mature in public and adolescent in private. I don't know if they're going for such a black and white emphasis over a gradual path of greys, but that's how it feels. There's little gradient overlap between the two.

What I'm still liking:
- I continually look forward to watch Morgan devise her way into taking Arthur down. Her story unfolding is the most interesting aspect of the show for me.
- glimpses into Merlin's plotting and shaping Camelot, opposite Morgan's plotting to take the throne, is a good contrast. Divining what makes Merlin tick is next in line for interesting after Morgan's development.

I noticed that overall the camera shots are a of a lot more stage work and not as much outside work. There are still some outside shots, but not near as many sweeping ones as at the start of the series. Plus the shots are tighter, which means less CG painting in backdrops and painting out of skies and airplanes and such. The sets are moving away from an organic feel to more of the 'pretty version of dirty' feel.  I think the budgetary restrictions are beginning to show.

** Edit: 8 episodes in:
a lot less Arthur in this episode. I think. Either that or I'm just tuning him out at this point. The three most interesting characters remain Morgan and Merlin. HAH see what I did there? Morgan was Igraine in this  episode. Forlani playing Morgan playing Igraine made Igraine a lot more interesting. Props to Claire Forlani for effectively pulling off playing Morgan pretending to be Igraine. She 'let slip' some of the Morgan mannerisms and speech patterns. She doesn't overtly play it up, she plays it with a recognizable subtlety. Good on her.  And shame on me for not recognizing her from "Mallrats".
The series as a whole seems to be treading water at this point, I'm not entirely sure where it is going. It has moments that seem to move in some sort of a direction, but they are fleeting.
Other than that, Camelot remains an entertaining distraction in comparison to the seriousness of the Borgias and the attention-grabbing and ever-improving Game of Thrones while waiting for Spartacus and Dexter and True Blood to come back.

** Edit: 9 episodes in:
at this point - best way to watch this series is have no expectations. I think production is still trying to figure things out. There is some story arc, driven by Morgan. The rest just fills in time.  Pretty much "blah blah blah Morgan vs. Merlin blah blah blah Arthur is a whiny bitch blah blah blah".
I keep watching because I'm invested but not disappointed enough (yet) to cut my losses.  It still holds some entertainment value.
Some battling takes place as Arthur and the guys defend a small outpost against invaders - invaders in Morgan's employ. After a couple of folks on Arthur's side get injured everyone leaves except Arthur, who remains behind to cover the retreat.  I'm not sure what the strategic advantage of the place actually holds. It's called Barton's Pass, but it really looks like anyone could just walk around the place.
This particular episode was noticeably short in time.  The odd editing of of some scenes leaves me to wonder if perhaps that's what shorted the time, and perhaps they edited things out to allow for story arc changes?  Or I could be giving them too much credit.
First thing I noticed when Ulfius (?) got killed during the battle he was wearing red. Red shirt reference perhaps? Doesn't matter - second thing I noticed was I barely remember seeing the guy before the "oh no he got killeded" bit.

** Edit: Season 1 Finale:
Okay - the previous episode coupled with this episode were probably the two best episodes of the season after the opening episodes. Or I just got beat into viewer submission by the time between episodes and their fading memories.
But - there was real movement in story. Arthur stayed behind at the pass to keep them occupied while all the knights escort a wounded gal away.  During the night Arthur "Home Alones" his makeshift bulwark area with booby-traps,  and sure enough first one scout, then four scouts fall to Arthur's devious planning. One gets away with Arthur's sword, which is then spirited to Morgan's hands to prove Arthur's death. By morning the attackers received reinforcements and they rush the place.  That's when Arthur puts his hands on his cheeks and makes the "O" face.
Meanwhile after Morgan receives Arthur's sword she goes into the motions to declare herself Queen.

Some drama happened this episode. Some fisticuffs and sword fights. Good on them! About time to really move stories along!
A major character I've been expecting to die by season's end actually dies in the season finale. Another major character dies that I wasn't anticipating. A third one announces they are leaving (but are they? hmmm). A fourth one that showed up mid-season ends up dead too.
Whoa - about half the major characters - poof gone. Just like that.

The knights start building the round table. They reserve a spot at the table for a fallen comrade they all respected so much. My prediction: that seat is going to eventually be filled by Lancelot, who we'll probably get to meet in season 2.  I wonder if they're going to incorporate the Siege Perilous into the story? That'd be cool. (whoa - wikipedia's entry on the siege perilous was seriously edited down from its multi-page glory).
Also - Morgan finally does what I've been waiting for her to do from the first episode - she takes on Guenivere's face, visits Arthur in his chambers, and gets her sex on with her brother. Mordred should be on the way!  But -- will Mordred be Arthurs? Or Merlins? hmmm?

This leads me to wonder if Season 2 of Camelot will take place years in the future as opposed to starting where Season 1 leaves off. Actually I don't even know if there is going to be a Season 2 at this point.

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