In a recent interview with The New York Times, Chris Chibnall, the showrunner of Starz’ new miniseries Camelot, said: “Every generation needs its (own version of) Camelot.” It’s the kind of quick, one-off phrase that showrunners must repeat over and over again while on press tours promoting their shows. But it’s also the kind of rhetorical statement that prompts many lazy critics looking for a lead, such as myself, to say, “Really? Does every generation really need a Camelot?”
After watching the first of 10 episodes, I am no closer to an answer than I was before.
Camelot looks to be a very straightforward retelling of the King Arthur tale that everyone who passed British lit should have at least a passing familiarity with. Witch-to-be Morgan (a very sallow, still very attractive Eva Green) poisons her father, the king, in a power grab for the throne. But the wizard Merlin (Joseph Fiennes, aka Shakespeare from Shakespeare in Love) heads out into the country to find Arthur Pendragon, the king’s illegitimate son and heir to the throne.
One of the best things Camelot has going for it is its physicality. The only fight scene in the first episode is more of a sudden and disorienting swinging of swords than it is a polished and chivalric duel. Fiennes depicts a young, spry and sadly beardless Merlin, who looks just as likely to get into a pub brawl as he is to cast a spell. The sex scenes are wonderfully gratuitous. Starz certainly has never seen a boob it didn’t immediately want to expose.
Then there’s Arthur himself. Jamie Campbell Bower looks, at least physically, unlike any King Arthur I’ve ever seen. He has an Ethan Hawke-type baby face that looks just barely post-pubescent. Bower’s youth adds an intriguing sense of desperation to the proceedings. Of course, it should be a foregone conclusion that Arthur Pendragon becomes King Arthur and defeats his evil half-sister, but can he really do it at this age and in only 10 episodes? To Bower’s credit, the scenes where Arthur acts older than his age and asserts his kingliness don’t fall flat.
Unfortunately, the atypical casting is the furthest Chibnall and his writers scribble outside the lines in this well-weathered story. The plot can be painfully chronological. There is no desire to play with or challenge previous conventions of the Arthurian tale, aside from the smallest of tweaks.
Obviously, it is possible to enjoy a story even if one already knows the ending. But Camelot wants to live and die on the theory that a story can be enjoyed even if one knows the beginning and middle as well, and in incredibly minute detail. One-tenth into the series, the smart money says that they are more likely to “die” by that theory.
— Alec Bojalad is a junior studying journalism. Does every generation need a Camelot? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.