This lightweight take on King Arthur’s court is a sexier, grittier kind of costume drama — and a huge step forward for Starz.
We are a long, long way from PBS, people.
The costume drama never seems to go out of favor, especially because it was discovered by the pay-cable universe, where all the boring historical bits could be replaced by boobs. And butts. Lots and lots of butts. Add the capacity for swords, sex, swearing and unlimited nudity, and you’ve got a costume drama that’s sexier and grittier.
Better? Not always. HBO’s Rome was excellent, but most others have succumbed to the titillations described above and put less emphasis on historical accuracy and, sorry to say, strong writing.
When the Spartacus story came to Starz, which was then just ramping up its original programming, the channel opted for the stylized, slow-motion blood-porn that made the lightweight 300 into a big-screen sensation. It should come as no surprise, then, that as Starz branches out to the new Camelot series, it did not consult Kenneth Branagh.
In fact, Starz touts the dramatic series thusly: “Forget everything you think you know — this is the story of Camelot that has never been told before.”
Consider that a red flag on historical inaccuracies for purists. The show’s creator, Michael Hirst, played just as loose with the facts when he made The Tudors for Showtime (where The Borgias now also favors salacious sex over sociopolitical lessons).
Which means if you’re looking for a more dense, PBS-style take, you’re clearly in the wrong place. Besides, isn’t there enough doubt about the existence of Camelot and variations on the Arthurian legend to allow some creative license?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then perhaps the sweeping lightness of Camelot will be for you. If you’re keeping track at home, Camelot probably falls short of Borgias on the gravitas scale while finding some common ground with Tudors. But it looks like something from the Royal Shakespeare Company when compared to Starz’s other effort, Spartacus, and its spinoff, Gods of the Arena of Penises, or whatever it’s called (full-frontal male nudity and a kind of cartoonish homoerotic emphasis are trademarks of the series).
So consider Camelot a major leap forward for the channel. Camelot stars Joseph Fiennes as Merlin, who sees a bleak future for Britain if King Uther’s daughter of the dark side, Morgan (Eva Green), takes over the throne. That’s why he aided King Uther in conceiving a son with Igraine (Claire Forlani) and having that son raised by commoners.
Of course, the boy is Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower), who is unprepared for his legacy. But Merlin is a helpful type. Fiennes gives Camelot some feistiness and playfulness, and the whole affair is boosted by the fiery Green, a bit part by James Purefoy and strong performances from the supporting cast (and yet more wonderful costumes by Joan Bergin, who worked her Emmy-winning magic on Tudors).
It takes a bit to imagine Bower being Arthur, who had legendary prowess on the battlefield. Bower looks like he could barely lift Excalibur and would be more at home on a runway with other models. But he grows on you, and maybe the point is that Arthur needs to learn how to be Arthur — the boy king learning to understand his destiny.
Besides, the important part seems to be not picking up a weapon, but laying down with Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton).
Forget heavy history. There’s no harm in enjoying this Camelot for the entertainment features it provides. Like boobs. And butts. And blood.
Airdate 10-11:45 p.m. Friday, April 1