I thought that Merlin was going to be rubbish, I really did. I pictured a horrible family-friendly show with all the oomph knocked out of it, a cynically developed smash-and-grab for the New Who demographic that was going to be as much of an awful misfire as the first series of Robin Hood. (That show may have got better in later years. I certainly wasn’t sticking around to give it a chance, as its opening year was abysmal amateur hour.) Now, Merlin may well have been greenlit partly because of the above. The fact that it has four co-creators implies that it was designed by committee. But you know what? Whether by accident or design, it’s turned into a brilliant show.
Sometimes it’s great being wrong.
The biggest trick up Merlin’s sleeve is the relationship between the two male leads, Colin Morgan and Bradley James, who play the titular hero and Prince Arthur respectively. The show is basically a buddy movie. The two characters hated each other for much of the first episode, but after the teenage Merlin was taken on as Arthur’s servant, they were soon indulging in the kind of homo-erotic friendship that would make Top Gun jealous. There’s real likeability and charm in the duo’s dialogue and interactions, which helps to give Merlin a free pass when it comes to the often repetitive storylines. The “formula” is thus: an evil stranger comes to Camelot, does something bad, and Merlin has to stop them while keeping the fact that he has magic a secret from both Arthur and particularly the King, Uther Pendragon, for whom sorcery is even less popular than Pastor Terry Jones.
Just when it was starting to become overly predictable, though, Merlin started showing signs of trying to break out from the formula, and at the end of its second season was becoming a lot more ambitious in terms of spectacle and story. The show is increasingly dark, with divided loyalties making the characters take on a greater level of complexity. It’s obvious, for example, that Merlin himself would do better to simply let Uther die and let Arthur take his place, but his loyalty to the Prince and to Camelot prevents him from doing this, even though his master gaining the throne would likely lead to him being able to reveal his secret without meeting a nasty end. We’ve probably already reached the point where Merlin continuing to hide his magic even while using it in plain sight is beyond the bounds of credibility, but when Arthur finally realises what’s been under his nose this whole time, it’ll be a nicely dramatic card to play.
As time has marched on, Merlin’s visuals and the way it’s shot have become more lush and expensive-looking, and some of the art direction is very nice indeed. With the storytelling finally catching up to the way the show looks, and the stellar performances of its leads, Merlin is easily up there with BBC1’s best shows. While it sometimes pulls its punches in terms of violence due to the timeslot (often featuring cutaways at the moment of impact, for example), the first episode of season three featured a couple of surprisingly effective scares and some crowd-pleasing villainy from the evil witch Morgana, which bodes well for the rest of the series.
More than anything, Merlin is a show that you really want to root for. It can do funny, dark and epic in short order, which is no mean feat, and somehow it all comes together. Hopefully the ratings will continue to hold up so the creators can continue the show on their own terms, as there’s a lot of mileage left in the format.
If you’ve never watched the show before, it’s not too late to start. Episode one of season three is on the iPlayer.