Starz’s Camelot underwhelms

Camelot, which premiered April 1, represents Starz’s second foray into the world of premium cable television, following on the heels of their Spartacus series. Starz, late to the party so to speak, is the last of the big three premium channel packages to start producing its own TV series, after HBO and Showtime. It has, with this series, attempted to continue to forge a niche which makes its shows unique to that of the aforementioned channels.

The problem is that it’s not that good of a niche. While HBO has the hour long drama all but locked up, and Showtime has proven itself in making primarily half-hour comedies, Starz seems to take the unrated aspect of premium cable and just run with it for the sake of ensuring that any lack of plot or character development is drowned in a sea of nudity shots.

Now I’m not a prude, but I know filler when I see it, and it’s painfully obvious that this show, though less than Spartacus, uses the gratuitous element as more of a crutch then plot mechanism to cover up the fact that really, the show’s just not that good.

Camelot has been marketed as a modern take on the classical tale of King Arthur, which is true in that it is the first American show on the topic in a decade, and not in the sense that it is more a re-arranging of old Arthur motifs than a total rewrite of the concept. The plot of the first season focuses on telling of his contest for the throne between Arthur and his half sister Morgan, who in the first episode initiates the struggle by secretly poisoning their father King Uther.

This, of course, quickly establishes Morgan as a villain.

The half sister gains the help of rival king, King Lot, through seduction, while Merlin retrieves Arthur, who has been raised not knowing his lineage, and takes him to an abandoned Roman fort, Camelot, to assemble his host.
After that, it’s a confrontation to set the pace for the rest of the season, as Morgan demands Arthur backs down, and Arthur finds the will to fight her.

Camelot drapes itself, slightly, with history, but it is no historical drama by any means. Beyond the obvious fact, that the legend of King Arthur is fiction and, at best, the characters are loose completions of multiple persons during England’s tumultuous and poorly documented pass through the Dark Ages, the show presents little care or understanding for historical setting at all, concluding that the Dark Ages consisted mostly of people in stone forts who looked like Vikings. Both of which, of course, aren’t really the case for England during the time Arthur was supposed to exist, but it is close enough for Starz.

There’s a wide range of talent in Camelot’s cast which gives the show an uneven feel. There are some great performances, like Eva Green as Morgan, delivering at least one solid villain for the show in her scheming to secure the throne.
Merlin, the wizard/mentor of the show, is played well by Joseph Fiennes, who generally acts as the brooding behind the scenes man of politics since the show in general doesn’t get wrapped up in the magic aspect too much.

On the other hand there’s James Purefoy as King Lot, the mesmerized rival for the throne, who doesn’t work as well for one main reason. To anyone who has seen HBO’s Rome, he will be instantly recognized as Marc Antony, which is awkward considering he seems to reprise effectively the same role.

Romanced by females with political ambitions and claim to power? Check. Opposing the intended heir? Check. But the performance feels more phoned in the second time, especially when this show seems to be a poor man’s version of the political schemes featured in Rome.

Sadly, the weakest cast member is also the most important, that of King Arthur himself, played by Jamie Bower. His look is more Robert Paterson of Twilight than ‘Dark Ages Warlord.’ He spends a large portion of time fantasizing over love interests, and his youthful whininess in the pilot treads dangerously close to Hayden Christensen in the prequel Star Wars series. While it is in part meant to be a coming of age tale, it’s hard to see this person becoming a character who was considered the embodiment of the medieval idea of chivalry.

Overall, Camelot pales compared to previous premium cable historical dramas like Rome and the Tudors, and while it shows Starz is working on producing better series to one day rival HBO and Showtime, the network still has some work to do before it can compete on the same level.

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