Saturday, 24 December 2011
What's happened to Merlin?
Merlin has always been one of my chief guilty pleasures, emphasis on 'guilty'. It's the sort of thing you create entire cover stories for. "I'm just going upstairs to watch, erm, a DVD", or "I just stumbled across it, I'm not really watching it". But now, with series four getting better viewing figures than ever (helped, admittedly, by a lacklustre showing from X Factor), it's actually getting close to Doctor Who-level viewing figures, but still with half the critical praise and about a tenth of the column inches. (And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Merlin is better than Doctor Who - I'm not going that far!) Merlin is one of the very few shows to have grown year-on-year, gaining in popularity all the time, and actually getting better as it grows up. Most shows are a shadow of their former self by their fourth year, while Merlin just seems to be shedding puppy fat.
When it started it was one of a raft of Saturday tea-time shows that sprung up to replicate Doctor Who's success. Where Robin Hood, Demons and, to a lesser extent, Primeval failed, Merlin kept going. It was a simple idea, kind of a Smallville-does-Camelot, exploring the famous characters of Arthurian myth when they were ridiculously hot 20-somethings. Merlin and Guinevere are servants while Arthur and Morgana are spoilt royals, living under the roof of the all-controlling, magic-hating King Uther. The creators cast largely unknowns, with Richard Wilson drafted in as Gaius to tempt the older fans and Anthony Head as Uther to appeal to the nerds. The show cleaved to a quest-of-the-week format and managed some impressive special effects and action sequences. But the makers soon realised that it wasn't the monsters or Morgana's impossibly gorgeous gowns that were drawing in the viewers - it was the chemistry between Merlin and Arthur.
By the end of series one it was clear that Colin Morgan could act a bit (hell, any Whovian could've told you after his brief showing in the episode Midnight that he could act). The jury, however, was still out on Bradley James' Arthur. He was good in the part, but I'm not sure that cocky, series one Arthur was much of a stretch for him. What was undeniable, though, was that somehow magic happened when the two of them were on screen together. They bounced off each other effortlessly, playing to each other's comic strengths and creating a touching, slow-build and very British friendship that practically defines bromance.
The one accusation, though, was that nothing ever changed in the world of Merlin. Morgana never goes evil, Arthur never becoems king and no-one ever finds out that Merlin has magic. But come series four - well, two out of three ain't bad. Morgana, after spending all of series three slinking around the castle doing sneaky things and unleashing her Smirk of Evil, is now living in a witchy shack, wearing a tonne of black lace and plotting world domination. It might not be an entirely believable character transition, but Katie McGrath is undoubtedlty having a whale of a time and has actually come into her own this series. (I've also just seen a video of her raving about Firefly and Nathan Fillion, so she's alright in my book!)
And as for 'King' Arthur, the show's biggest ever change came in one bold - but necessary - move: they killed off Uther. Anthony Head has been missed, but his death not only provided one of the most tear-jerking moments in the show, but it allowed Bradley James to finally prove that he's picked up some acting chops along the way. It was a stunning, Howard Overman-penned episode, perfectly balancing the tonal ups and downs before ending it with the spectacularly feel-good moment of Arthur's coronation, and Merlin's proud, shining face yelling "long live the king!" many shows would have saved that for the final moment of the final episode, up there with Clark Kent dashing out of the Daily Planet and ripping his shirt open to reveal the S shield on his chest. Merlin, however, knocked it out in episode three of series four.
It marked a watershed for the show. This series, airing at the later time of 8pm, has been noticeably darker. Gone are the silly fart gags of earlier series', replaced instead by torture, death and betrayal. The Guinevere/Lancelot plot has also been carried out now, even if they did cop out by introducing an element of magical control. I guess they just figured that kids wouldn't be able to quite get their head around Gwen loving two men at the same time, which is fair enough. The Knights have had a bigger role to play this series, and Adetomiwa Edun even got the chance to show us that he's not as bland as his character would often have you believe.
Which isn't to say that comedy has been abandoned altogether. A Servant of Two Masters is basically a comedy tour de force from Colin Morgan playing about three different characters and the writers seem to have been doing more slash-baiting than ever this series, including a roll around in bed, a trouserless tussle and, in a move which must surely be the pinnacle of all slash-baiting ever, a trouserless Arthur spinning Merlin around over a table to get at something he's hiding behind his back. Honestly, they're just seeing how much they can get away with.
But they've kept Merlin and Arthur's relationship at the forefront, even with all the Gwen/Lancelot stuff going on. Merlin might be a sword and sorcery show, but the thing that gives it crossover appeal is that what it's really about is two best mates, winding each other up, bickering, defending each other and being very reluctant to do anything quite so girlie as actually admit that they're friends. In an American show they would hug and declare manly hetero love for each other. In a British show, they just take the piss out of each other relentlessly. It might just be the best portrayal of a quintessentially British friendship ever.
The series four finale may even break the third Merlin taboo, and have Arthur actually find out that his loyal servant is the most powerful sorceror in the world and can also control dragons, you know, just for good measure. But then what would they have left to do in series five? Which, already, I can't wait for. Finally, Merlin is good enough that I can actually list it as one of my favourite shows without adding "yes, I know it's a kids show" or "I only watch it because they're hot". Hooray!