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.
This being Starz, there's a lot of that sort of thing. But just as The Tudors managed to make the spectacle of a man as beautiful as Jonathan Rhys Meyers having a great deal of sex not just commonplace, but a little dull, Camelot's nakedness is to very little effect. In the first episode alone, we get Arthur and the interchangeable blonde by the stream, Morgan having cat-scratch sex with Lot of Orkney (one of Arthur's rivals for the throne), their mother succumbing to the advances of Uther Pendragon who seduces her while he's disguised as her husband, Gorlois, and Arthur having naughty dreams that mash up From Here to Eternity and Davidoff Cool Water ads. The babe in that dream shows up in the second episode in a drenched, nipple-outlining shift (the show is somewhat inconsistent when it comes to nipple display) and proceeds to menace Arthur while straddling him on a beach.
The only man in the show with any adult sex appeal, Joseph Fiennes, has the good sense to stay bundled up. That sense appears to end there. Fiennes' Merlin is, among other things, a cross-country marathoner, speaker of much purple dialogue, and reasonably adept political schemer. What he's not is remotely interesting, neither the wag of The Once and Future King, nor the fraud of Twain's court, nor the man mediating between two eras in The Mists of Avalon.
In spite of its profound flaws, Camelot might have had some merit if it had an original Arthurian idea. The show has occasional flashes of innovation, turning Arthur's retrieval of Excalibur into a test of will and skill rather than a matter of some glowy good fortune in a courtyard. But there's no particular interpretation of the broader elements of the story: the battle between Christianity and magic, the bonds of marriage and of fraternity, between England's indigenous peoples and its Roman influences.
There's some weak-tea rhetoric about governing for the people, but Arthur's no forerunner of the Magna Carta: He's interesting as the thing that holds the center briefly in a savage age, and who relinquishes his grip—but while we see a lot of dead bodies, there's no sense of why people are killing each other. And that's not the only character the series gets wrong. Guinevere (for of course the naked babe on the beach is she) is supposed to suffer intense moral agony over her love for Arthur and her desire for Lancelot (here retitled Leontes, for no clear reason)—not moan about whether Leontes, whom she is set to marry, is "the one," and complain when her father barges into her room like a sitcom teenager. And Morgan is a priestess, not a schemer who gets naked for wolves, steals clippings of people's toenails, and wiffles about like an irritated Wiccan with an outsized clothing budget. There's nothing here to last the ages, or even a full season of television.
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