Premiered June 21 at 9pm
NBC is importing dramas from outside the U.S. this year, and “Merlin” comes to the Peacock after airing in the U.K. last fall. It doesn’t feel anything like most of NBC’s dramatic programming, and is instead reminiscent of a lighter, brighter, less mature version of HBO’s “Rome.” The classic story has been changed, pitting Merlin and Arthur together as their lives converge early on, with Merlin as a gutsy, magic-wielding do-gooder and Arthur as a snotty prince who takes himself too seriously. If it sounds like “Smallville,” which utilized a similar twist and made Clark Kent and Lex Luthor best friends before either fulfilled their destinies, it’s probably because this new show was inspired by the Superman reinvisioning.
“Merlin” is still set in Camelot, and uses magic to great extent as its definitive hook. Much like every episode of “Smallville” finds Clark fending off a “meteor freak” with unexplained powers, Merlin must combat some deadly use of magic with his own natural talents and wit. He, of course, has his Merlin-style mentor, a bumbling old physician, and encounters his fair share of ladies throughout his time in the court. His initial meeting with Prince Arthur leads to taking up arms, but eventual events lead to Merlin ending up as Arthur’s servant. The pilot closes with an intriguing and fun summary of events by Camelot’s fabled dragon, voiced by John Hurt, where he implores Merlin to fulfill his destiny, even if, as viewers are well aware, things aren’t exactly like they’re supposed to be. One day, however, Arthur and Merlin will call each other the greatest of friends.
The pilot itself is impossibly hokey, and it’s hard to take the characters, notably Merlin and the evil witch set off by her husband’s execution by the king, seriously. At the end of the pilot, the dragon’s epitaph of sorts put things together nicely, and made it seem as if this silly show could actually work. I was driven by hopeful possibility to watch the second part of the two-hour pilot broadcast, but was quickly disappointed. Two minutes in, the plot and dialogue are so devastatingly boring that it’s simply not feasible to keep track of what’s going on. No member of the cast is skilled enough or entertaining enough to contribute much. Arthurian legend fans may love the series, but it won’t register strongly with the general population that prefers NBC’s other fare like “Southland” or “Law & Order.”
How will it work as a series? Well, episode two didn’t symbolize much promise for the future of the show. It seems destined to follow in the footsteps of idol “Smallville” and result in episode after episode of challenging magic, with the continuous nagging feeling that those around Merlin should really be picking up on his abilities, what with him using them all the time. That said, there are sure to be plenty of Arthurian stories the show can borrow from, and shouldn’t have trouble infusing that material into its plots.
How long will it last? Well, the show has already been renewed by BBC One for a second season. Whether NBC will continue airing it is another question. CBS liked their summer pick-up from Canada, “Flashpoint,” and Showtime ordered up more of the British “Secret Diary of a Call Girl.” NBC has enough programming, and this really feels like a summer show that should have aired on the WB, so I think this season will be it for America.
Pilot grade: C-