Why “Merlin” is One of My Favorite Fantasy Shows

MERLIN (hi res)For the past several months, I’ve been mildly addicted to the BBC One fantasy Merlin. Its finale has already aired in the UK, and its fifth and final season is now on Syfy here in the States. And I’m excited that today its leading actor, Colin Morgan (who plays Merlin), won a UK National Television Award for best male performance in a drama. I love the acting in runners-up Sherlock and Doctor Who, but it’s pretty cool that an underdog like Merlin won this award, and Morgan deserves it. (He also gave a career-making delivery of a line on a Tennant episode of Doctor Who, so he deserves the award for that one as well. A few people might know what I’m talking about!)

So in honor of its final season and the attention it’s receiving today, here is a list of reasons why I love this show… and why I think every fantasy fan should give it a try.

5. It’s an Old Story Told in New Ways

Merlin re-imagines the world of Arthurian legend in a way that feels fresh and modern. In fact, that’s what initially hooked me about the show: trying to guess how the writers would sort out the Arthurian stories. For instance, early on, Guinevere is a servant who despises Arthur for his arrogance… yet anyone familiar with King Arthur knows that Guinevere ends up as Arthur’s queen. From the beginning, I was curious to find out when they would fall in love — and how.

Gwen

Gwen and the knights.

I also wondered what would happen when Lancelot appeared on the scene. Meanwhile, episodes like “The Sword in the Stone” caught my attention with their titles alone, because I wanted to see how the show would play with the well-known stories such as Arthur finding Excalibur. And the biggest question I had was whether Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister and a close friend to the main characters, would end up becoming the villain I knew she was in Arthurian legend. (Mid-series spoilers ahead!)

4. Morgana’s Journey From Hero to Villain is Believable

Morgana

Morgana.

It’s rare to see a character journey from hero to villain, but Morgana does this in a riveting, realistic way over the first few seasons of Merlin. At first a friend to Merlin, Arthur, and Guinevere, she bonds with them over situations such as hiding a Druid boy — a boy with magic — from King Uther, who has banned magic. This project is dear to her, which reveals her compassionate side.

However, Morgana suffers from nightmares on a regular basis, and she finally learns that these are visions — which means she has magic. She fears for her life if Uther finds out, and as she bonds with her half-sister — a witch — and butts heads with Uther over magic, Merlin begins to worry that Morgana is against them. Eventually, she decides to win Camelot from Uther to make it safe for those with magic.

I won’t give everything away, but there are secrets and blackmail and some sort of voodoo dolls, and it all becomes extremely suspenseful by season 4. I’ll admit that Morgana becomes something of a one-note character later in Merlin’s run, but her journey is exciting and realistic for a long time. And what makes her story so believable is that we can relate to her the whole time, even as she makes decisions that antagonize the show’s heroes.

3. It’s Not Afraid to Be Cheesy

The boy band look.

The boy band look.

Most cheesy shows are just plain bad, and it’s slightly embarrassing to admit when we watch them. I’m thinking of shows like Prison Break or BBC One’s Robin Hood, which have been guilty pleasures of mine in the past. But Merlin almost seems to flaunt its cheesiness, especially with its bromantic bickering between Merlin and Arthur — usually with a prancing little change of music in the background to indicate that the scene has turned playful. There’s also at least one too many episodes involving some evil creature or wizard taking over someone else’s body in an absolutely ridiculous way. In one episode, a goblin possesses the kindly old physician Gaius, causing him to lust after gold and lick coins; in another, Arthur grows donkey ears and ends up braying whenever he tries to speak. These are silly plots that nonetheless make even the most discerning viewers laugh, every time.

After watching Merlin for quite a while, I started craving those moments when Arthur calls Merlin an idiot or Merlin adds a hole in Arthur’s belt because he’s getting fat. I’m not afraid to admit that. So what if the CGI isn’t very good? And so what if Bradley James as Arthur looks more like a boy band member than a medieval prince? The cheesiness is part of Merlin’s charm, and it’s refreshing to embrace that for a change.

2. The Characters Feel Like Family

Maybe it’s Merlin’s cheesiness that makes it feel so comfortable as a show. It’s welcoming. The characters start to feel like friends after a few episodes, and I began looking forward to tuning in at the end of a long week just to see the familiar faces and enjoy the predictable banter between the characters. The friendships between Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere, Gaius, and the knights (among others) have ups and downs that make them tangible. These people make sacrifices for each other. They take the piss out of each other. They feel like real people, and watching this show starts to feel like coming home in a way that few other shows (Gilmore Girls!) do.

1. The Plotting and Pacing Are Nearly Perfect

The set-up for Merlin’s version of Camelot is simple: King Uther has banned magic because it’s dangerous, and he believes that magicians use magic for evil purposes. (It’s all very Dragon Age to me, but Merlin came first!) Merlin has magic. And he can’t let anyone know.

merlin

So what strings along the suspense from beginning to end is Merlin hiding his magic from Arthur. Merlin frequently saves the prince and others using magic, but he must do so when they’re no looking, in subtle ways. At one point, he even tries to show Arthur that magic can be used for good — disguising himself as an old man in case things go wrong — but to no avail. And one of the most tense episodes is when Merlin agonizes over wanting to help Morgana deal with her magic by confessing that he has magic, too. Had he told her, Morgana may not have felt so alone, and Camelot’s history might have been very different. (And if that sounds cheesy, let’s remember #3 above.)

Sure, there’s the occasional a-visitor-wants-to-kill-Arthur episode — a lot of those, actually — but this war over magic is the overarching plot throughout the series. I appreciate that subplots don’t overwhelm the main storyline; nothing gets too convoluted. Merlin keeping his magic a secret adds suspense to many of the episodes, and as viewers, we’re left wondering what will happen when Arthur finally finds out who his friend truly is.

– Ashley

14 comments on “Why “Merlin” is One of My Favorite Fantasy Shows

  1. Tyler Murphy says:

    I watched a few episodes of the first season a few years ago, but it didn’t really take. I think at the time I was more focused on getting my serial fantasy show fix from Legend of the Seeker (which, while cheesy, didn’t have the horrible CGI)..

    However, that was pre-my love for Dr Who, so maybe I can handle the kitsch better now.

    • I watched the first couple episodes of Legend of the Seeker several months ago and thought it was pretty good, but it didn’t draw me in enough to continue watching it. It’s tough to find a fantasy show that’s not cheesy! But now that Merlin is over, I may give Legend of the Seeker another go.

      And yes, I agree with you about Doctor Who increasing my tolerance (and even my love) for the sentimental and slightly cheesy.

  2. Chuck says:

    I’ve never watched, but then again, I don’t watch much tv in general. But always nice to know there are still things on TV that aren’t “reality” shows that people enjoy.

    • I agree with that. Not having a TV the past few years has been great for me, as I’m not bombarded with reality TV every time I turn on the screen! Instead, I can pick what I want to watch and look it up online or order it through Netflix, etc.

      That being said, I feel like there are some good (and geeky!) shows on now that may be turning the tide away from reality TV a bit. Almost like the reality TV phase is subsiding to more appropriate levels… I hope!

  3. Oh my gosh! It’s so weird you posted about this show! I just wrote a scholarly article on this show that’s going to be published in a book on television adaptations! We are kindreds! I couldn’t agree more with all your comments! One of the most common complaints I hear about the show is that it’s so campy, and it makes little to no effort to try to show “historical accuracy” of the time period. The show is self-aware in the way it looks and feels like a show, not actual medieval times, and the characters use modern-day speech and wear modern-day attire. I actually came to appreciate those aspects of the show. In avoiding anything remotely close to “accuracy” the show is able to explore a lighter, friendlier world wherein equality and respect exists across different social classes and genders (and we avoid all the weird incest stuff).

    • Oh I totally agree! I didn’t even get into the historical inaccuracies here, because this show is not making mistakes. The anachronisms are obviously deliberate to create a specific atmosphere, and I like it as well. It’s almost its own world, rather than a specific period in history that’s being presented. On a side note, I also soooo appreciate that the writers never let the story get away from them. So many beloved shows (like Lost) have had that problem in the past… or they just become melodramatic. Merlin was really well-done from start to finish.

      What is the book called that you are writing for? I’d love to read your article when it’s published!

      • I totally agree with you! The book is tentatively titled Supernaturally Grimm: Fairy Tales on TV. My chapter (which I wrote with a colleague) will be called “Merlin as Initiation Tale: A Contemporary Fairy Tale Manual for Adolescent Relationships.” :)

  4. simpleek says:

    Merlin was one of the many shows I wanted to watch. Considering there are a ton of great shows on cable (I don’t have cable), I would have to wait until Netflix to release them. I plan on watching the show at some point. And considering Merlin is practically the basis for stories like Dragon Age, I can’t wait to watch this soon.

    • I don’t have cable either… which means that I’m addicted to watching older shows on Netflix! They just put series 4 of Merlin up. It’s nice on Netflix being able to catch up on shows like Battlestar Galactica and some of the Star Trek runs that I missed in the past… but I do miss out on a lot of the new shows, like you! It seems I’m always a season or two behind.

  5. Great article!

    Merlin is my favorite fantasy show! It’s interesting that we got a chance to see the possibilities between Merlin and Arthur as young men. Although the show did not stick to historical accuracies, I wish the writers would have created an ending with a “happily ever after” tone.

    I will miss watching the show.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks! I’ll miss the show so much, too. Still, it’s refreshing to find a show that ends when it’s still good, without overstaying its welcome. British shows have been pretty good about that, I suppose!

  6. Sam Leung says:

    I never watched this series, despite being a bit of a King Arthur geek (is there such a thing?) for the very reason that you mentioned, that it seemed a bit cheesy.
    Then again, that’s never really deterred me from loving a series, I’m a big fan of the BBC One Robin hood series as well! I didn’t know anyone else had watched that to be honest. I made my bf sit through all of it… I think it might have been a bit painful for him sometimes :). It was also the portrayal of the relationships in that series was also what really made it such a good series I think.
    Have you watched Game of Thrones by any chance? If not, I think you should check it out, I think you’d like it! I only got into it recently as I generally am more a sci-fi fan, but it drew me immediately. After I finish watching the most recent season it’ll be Merlin next I think!

    • Oooh another Robin Hood fan! I tried to make my sister watch it, but we ended up laughing through the first episode due to the cheesiness. But I agree that the relationships in the series made it worth watching all the way through, so I enjoyed it. If you could handle Robin Hood’s cheesiness, I bet you’ll really enjoy Merlin. It’s not nearly as cringey as Robin Hood.

      I love Game of Thrones! That and Doctor Who are probably my favorite shows on TV at the moment. Like you, I tend to watch more science fiction… though I think for me it’s because there really aren’t a lot of good fantasy shows out there, whereas sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica and the multiple Star Trek series are so well-done. But I’m going to give Legend of the Seeker a go next!

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