A new Starz show reinterprets the legend of Arthur, with none of the insight or pizazz of earlier versions
Why do we like King Arthur so much? For T.H. White, author of the Once and Future King series, Arthur's court was a place to explore utopian governance. Mark Twain saw him as fodder for a satire of modern technology in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. And in The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley pushed him to the side in a feminist reinterpretation of the battle between Christianity and paganism that's perhaps the most effective distillation of the story's continuing draw. The story of a man elevated by birth and good fortune to unite a fractured land, only to break it again in the name of Christian quest, is infinitely adaptable.
It was inevitable that some premium cable network would tackle the legend, imbuing it with the sex, violence, and heightened emotions that are the hallmarks of this moment in prestige television. Camelot, Starz's attempt to continue mining the vein of abs-and-questionable history it began to tap with its Spartacus shows, is the highly questionable result of that impulse. But while it's got the casting and rich-by-way-of-BCBG look of a campy prestige historical show, Camelot's almost completely devoid of ideas or values, much less decent acting or writing.
The walleyed British pretty boy Jamie Campbell Bower may be well-suited to yearn after imprisoned girls, as he did in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, or to embody a fey young Gellert Grindelwald, as he's doing in the two-part movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But as an Arthur we first encounter banging his foster brother's girlfriend by a stream, he's dreadfully miscast. Eva Green, as his half-sister Morgan, puts it perfectly in her withering assessment: "It's pretty, it talks, but it is not an heir."
It would be nice to be able to root for Morgan, particularly if you grew up with the alternate narrative of The Mists of Avalon, which created fully-developed female characters to match, and overshadow, the rather thin archetypes who sat at Arthur's round table and fought by his side. Green was practically born to play witchy, with those vast eyes and her erotic slash of a mouth, and she's done it so well before, both literally as Serafina Pekkala in The Golden Compass, and figuratively, as Vesper Lind in the excellent Bond reboot, Casino Royale. But Camelot falls back on the lazy old idea that Morgan isn't just a force beyond the Christian king's control, the woman who both sows his doom and ferries him beyond it, but a Bad Greedy Whore, a woman who wants power not due her, and takes off her clothes to get it. One of the only arresting visual images in the show is her tied to a post against an expanse of Cornish countryside, gold dress flapping against blue sky, abandoned by the man she seduced, whom she'd moments earlier urged to rape her in public as a display of his masculinity.