'Knightfall': TV Review

Neither a knight fail nor a holy knight.

History's attempt to partially clone 'Vikings' wants to be King Arthur or Robin Hood more than it wants to be about the Knights Templar.

Vikings, which just entered its fifth season, is one of TV's better unsung dramas. Creator Michael Hirst has consistently delivered muscular action, thoughtful spiritual exploration and some of the strongest female characters around. At this point, History could have a roster of a half-dozen Vikings knockoffs, each with a cast of respectable British thespians having sword fights and talking about their respective version of God in different eras.

On Wednesday, four-plus years after Vikings launched, the first of History's Vikings knockoffs arrives in the form of Knightfall, a drama about the waning years of the Knights Templar. The series takes a fascinating historical moment and uses it as an excuse to channel a half-dozen fictionalized histories and renders something specific relatively generic.

Knightfall was created by Don Handfield and Richard Rayner and features an eclectic production team including showrunner Dominic Minghella (Doc Martin), TV veterans Jeff Pinkner, Andre Nemec, Josh Appelbaum and Scott Rosenberg, plus executive producer Jeremy Renner, whose heavily advertised involvement might lead you to believe he also makes an acting appearance. He does not.

Tom Cullen leads a cast in which roughly two-thirds of the performers have Downton Abbey among their credits.

The story starts in 1291 as Cullen's Landry and his fellow Templar knights are in the waning days of the Siege of Acre, a defeat that marked the last of the Crusaders' strongholds in the Holy Land. In the conflict, warrior Gawain (Padraic Delaney) is injured protecting Landry, who makes a desperate final attempt to safeguard the Holy Grail, only to see it lost, seemingly for good.

Fifteen years later, Landry is stationed with many of his fellow knights in Paris, where he offers military training to King Philip IV (Ed Stoppard) and relationship advice (and more) to Queen Joan (Olivia Ross). The fate of France may hinge on the proper nuptials of the King's daughter Isabella (Sabrina Bartlett), and that nation-binding union may rely on a blessing from Pope Boniface VIII (Jim Carter), which worries Philip's scheming counselor Guillaume de Nogaret (Julian Ovenden). The Knights Templar are getting impatient about their role in a world in which there are no Crusades, but things are about to change when a tragedy leads Landry to a clue about the whereabouts of the Grail, in turn unearthing Muslim Saracens and a mysterious brotherhood.

Per actual history, the Templar Knights had an important role in Paris in this period and were, indeed, seen as a threat by Guillaume de Nogaret and a variety of European royals. Most of that had to do with the size of their army and the fullness of their coffers, and to give the series some credit, these are points that it makes, albeit fleetingly, through six of the first season's 10 episodes.

If you were to watch Knightfall while being periodically distracted by Twitter or checking your email or flipping over to see the score of a basketball game, you'd very likely come away with the conclusion that the Templar Knights existed for one reason, and that reason was, "Something something something The Holy Grail." That's a long way from the Templar Knights' actual business with the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, which is somewhere between "None, if you demand hard historical evidence" and "Perhaps some, if you like your history interwoven with folklore and legend." There's nothing inherently wrong with the latter approach and that's what the series embraces, as the storyline likely to captivate most viewers relates to an assembling of clues of the sort that would usually attract characters played by Nicolas Cage or Tom Hanks with bad haircuts.

What things are distinctive and interesting about the Templars are given lip service. Mostly, though, they're a framework for a story that's a little bit King Arthur and a little bit Robin Hood (Minghella's BBC drama Robin Hood yields much overlap) and even occasionally a little bit Game of Thrones, and if you're going to push the story that aggressively in those derivative directions, you can't blame me if I'm going to start yelling, "It's just a flesh wound!" or "I fart in your general direction!" when things get excessively earnest and, in turn, excessively silly, which happens often. One of the great pleasures of Vikings is all of the "that can't possibly be true" elements that prove to have concrete basis, while Knightfall's fits of fancy are more often embellished or cool things from other sources grafted into the real backdrop.

Another of the great pleasures of Vikings has always been a cast of quirky actors doing quirky things, from Travis Fimmel's tormented mumbling to the glorious weirdness of Gustaf Skarsgård. It's a showcase of character actors playing beefy warriors.

Knightfall, in contrast, goes right down the middle with nearly every performance. Cullen is good-looking and sturdy and delivers every line in identical hallowed tones (except for the rare moments in which he bellows hilarious). The other various knights are interchangeably British and bearded and defined by at most one character detail. By virtue of being the smartest character in the story and the only one not talking about the Holy Grail incessantly, Ovenden's Nogaret emerges as a solid villain, and I'll never quibble about listening to Jim Carter make grand pronouncements with his impeccable voice.

The women are instantly all more complex and spirited, with Ross and especially Bartlett making good impressions. Sarah-Sofie Boussnina is less well-treated as Adelina, an occasionally appearing vestige of a woefully thin subplot involving a threat to Paris' Jewish community.

Photographed by Christopher Manley, Knightfall looks great. Probably too great. This is a version of 14th century Paris in which every interior is immaculately cleaned and the bleaching budget for the Knights Templar's white robes must be astronomical. I want a whole episode about laundry day.

The battles and sword fights are staged competently, but the only memorable parts tend to be the abrupt and surprisingly violent climaxes, often involving people getting swords or crucifixes rammed down their throats. A lot of what goes into making period pieces like this feel modern is the updated proto-feminist heroines, but nearly as much updating comes from gleeful appreciation that people in the past were as into torture and pervy sexuality as our hip, contemporary cable dramas. So Knightfall plays that game as well, tepidly.

The series moves at a very fast clip because it offers little to digest. Landry gets basically a clue-per-week on his Grail search, which rarely touches on real religion or faith. For a man working without cellphones or email, de Nogaret's plotting goes at a whiplash pace, especially in the last of the six episodes I watched. Since I don't have a clue where the show can progress if it leaves actual history behind and just embraces the Grail pseudo-history, I may keep watching to see when real history dovetails back in, or just because shouting Monty Python dialogue at a drama taking itself too seriously amuses me.

Cast: Tom Cullen, Jim Carter, Pádraic Delaney, Simon Merrells, Julian Ovenden, Olivia Ross, Ed Stoppard, Sabrina Bartlett, Bobby Schofield, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina
Creators: Don Handfield and Richard Rayner
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (History)