Tom Shales's TV Preview of 'Merlin' on NBC

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009

The not-so-magical return of Merlin the magician to NBC prime time probably owes less to the ratings earned by the network's "Merlin" miniseries in 1998 than to subsequent gargantuan global grosses for movies based on J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books.

By no coincidence nor any sort of sorcery, "Merlin" the series, premiering tomorrow night, gives us the mystical magician as a teenager who, like Potter, has a gift for enabling the impossible and a certain ingenuous charm. He'll use his magic, over the run of the series, to escape sticky scrapes and to help ensure that his young friend Arthur lives to be crowned Camelot's king.

The miniseries boasted not only movie-quality special effects but also a solid cast -- Sam Neill as Merlin, Nicholas Clay as Leo and Miranda Richardson as mad mad Mab. But except for John Hurt, who does some off-camera narrating, the performers in the new series version are virtual or actual unknowns. It's a bland group, too, with Colin Morgan merely sufficient as Merlin and Bradley James looking like a Nordic surfer as the adolescent Arthur.

They meet just after Merlin has arrived in Camelot pursuing his -- oh, no, not again -- "destiny." Arthur turns out to be a smart-alecky pain in the neck, a bully heading up a coven of bullies who welcome Merlin to town with a merrie olde knife fight. When that's over, and Merlin tries to take a swing at the princely punk, he is tossed into the clink for messing with a royal personage.

Merlin's mentor and guardian, Gaius (Richard Wilson), springs him from the pokey and tells him, "You never cease to amaze me" -- oddly inappropriate dialogue considering he's known the lad for only one day. Merlin is freed, but only after spending time in the stocks and getting pelted with vegetables, with everyone issuing hearty ha-has, as if this were all jolly good fun. Camelot begins to seem about as wondrous and mythic as Camden, N.J.

A sinister sorceress puts a spell on Arthur and his court by singing them a seductive song. The imagery somewhat backfires: We see the royal audience comatose and covered in cobwebs and can't help identifying with them; comatose and cobwebby is pretty much how a viewer is likely to feel after surviving only the first 30 or 40 minutes of the premiere. The fact is, what are palmed off as "adventures" are really quite dull, and a sluggish pace doesn't help one bit. Neither does a soporific musical score that imitates John Williams at his laziest.

The first hour is brightened by the appearance of a fairly marvelous flying dragon, which rises up out of the mist to tell Merlin, in a stentorian speaking voice, about his duties to Arthur and the Camelot legend. Unfortunately, even flying dragons have become fairly commonplace in the fantasy films that have flooded the marketplace in the past couple of decades. This computer-created beastie lacks personality as well as panache.

By the time Merlin gets into his second street brawl with Arthur, and Arthur tells him, "There's something about you, Merlin; I can't quite put my finger on it," it's easy to put a finger on something about this show: It takes the stuff of legend and imagination and makes it dry and commonplace. You look forward not to the next exciting chapter, but for the whole enterprise to go "poof" and disappear.

Merlin (one hour) premieres tomorrow night at 8 on NBC, with another new episode at 9.

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