It’s both a surprise and a relief when James Purefoy bursts through the door of Uther Pendragon’s banquet hall on Starz’s new Arthurian peep show, Camelot. On HBO’s dearly departed Rome, which innovatively chronicled the rise and fall of both the Roman Empire and the bosoms of its citizens, Purefoy—an inveterate scene-stealer—played Marc Antony as lust-crazed, apolitical, and strangely, almost compulsively, honorable. In doing so, he managed to create one of the most memorable small-screen characters in recent history. Here, he brings some of the same cocksure bravado, if less depth, to King Lot, one of a number of figures vying for Pendragon’s evacuated throne. While Lot craves the crown, however, Purefoy seems more interested in simply getting off of this ramshackle show as quickly as possible.
Lot’s crucial scene comes about midway through the first episode. After being seduced into a political marriage and some pretty raucous consummation by Pendragon’s exiled daughter, Morgan (Eva Green), Lot becomes embroiled in a power struggle with Pendragon’s other lost offspring, Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower), and Arthur’s mentor, Merlin (Joseph Fiennes). The four, along with their various knights and hangers-on, meet in the entryway to Camelot, which in this show is more of a fixer-upper than the castle we might remember Richard Harris occupying in the 1967 musical. Morgan, Arthur, and Merlin trade barbs like dysfunctional family members after a few drinks at Thanksgiving, and a bored Lot recedes into the background. Finally, after much sniping and bickering, the camera cuts to Lot, sitting on a rock, shaking his head. “Fuck this,” he says, and storms off.
Despite injunctions in promotional materials to “Forget all you know” about Arthurian legend, very little about this revision of the tale is new, and what is new is ultimately not that interesting. Indeed, we’ve seen the “gritty” take on various works of childhood mythology so many times that it’s become a convention in and of itself (see, notably, Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur). The Arthurian legend, in other words, wasn’t due for a radical revision in this mode, and it certainly doesn’t receive one here.
What makes Lot’s declaration so resonant is that it serves as a kind of meta-commentary on the show itself. Having established himself on a highly successful, highly influential, and highly individual revisionist historical epic, Purefoy seems out of place in this rote genre exercise. Camelot‘s mossy aesthetic palate and Bronx-meets-Brittania lexicon could easily be mistaken for Ridley Scott’s snoozy Robin Hood; its goopy moral center might have been lifted from the most recent installment of the Shrek series; and its bizarrely pat utilization of shape-shifting seems undercooked in comparison with the work being done by those sexy beasts on HBO’s True Blood.
So far, in other words, Camelot isn’t worth watching for its new take on legends of old. What does make it worth watching, however, is a pair of engrossing performances from a couple of resilient, under-the-radar actors. The battle between the green Arthur, the wild and wise Merlin, and the ruthlessly savvy Morgan is mirrored in its casting: Green and Fiennes tear through the screen, and Bower, otherwise a perfectly serviceable rake, becomes basically invisible when either of them are in view.
Green exploded onto the scene with her enrapturing turn as the hinge of a love triangle in Bertolucci’s 2003 ode to nudity and the French New Wave, The Dreamers. But since then, her talents (at least her dramatic ones) have been inexplicably underused, most notably in her turn as a Bond girl. Here she inhabits a role that would normally be occupied by an aging B actress who is willing to take her top off (Lucy Lawless, for instance, in Starz’s similarly exploitative Spartacus: Blood and Sand). More than that, the plot repeatedly puts Green into situations that no actor, no matter how great, could survive with ego intact, including a scene that seems lifted from a Twilight porn parody. The authentic, searing rage she brings to the part in spite of all this must be partially generated by the indignity she feels at being buried before she’s dead.
Campbell Bower’s Arthur feels more like Young Indiana Jones than the Once and Future King, but, luckily, he shares most of his scenes with Fiennes’s nonsensical yet brilliant Merlin. Jettisoning the white beard and pointy hat of legend, Fiennes’s buzz-cut, tattooed sorcerer would look more at home in the mosh pit of a D.C. hardcore show than at the Round Table. Capturing some of the energy and genuine likability of his performance in Shakespeare In Love, and leavening it with a healthy dose of Travis Bickle, the actor’s madcap, crazy-eyed performance is a pleasure to watch. Fiennes, like Green, seems to be relishing the opportunity below his weight class, effectively rescuing each scene he’s in by momentarily distracting the audience from the travesty that surrounds him.
And Camelot is a bit of a travesty. Like The Borgias, which debuted the same weekend, Camelot is an enthusiastic entry into the sword-and-sandals/T&A epic genre. We first meet Arthur fondling the breasts of a young country girl, Morgan wears nuns’ habits that would appear immodest in a Madonna video, and Guinevere first appears nude on a beach in what is, I’m fairly certain, an intentional reference to Bo Derek in 10. And like The Borgias, Camelot often seems to be motivated by little more than a schoolyard curiosity about what sex looked like in olden times. Given all this, it’s very tempting to follow Purefoy’s lead and say, “Fuck this,” to the whole kit and kaboodle.
But the strength of Camelot, as opposed to its similarly lecherous twin The Borgias, is that it does not seem to take itself at all seriously. Compared with the legion of Shakespearean thespians smothering The Borgias, the leads on Camelot can seem positively refreshing. Green and Fiennes have what seems to be free reign with their portrayals, and, as a result, they’re producing some of the most idiosyncratic and engaging character work on TV right now.
This is not HBO or even Showtime, and nobody is holding their breath for Camelot to pull down any Emmys this year, but these diminished expectations actually work in the show’s favor. Camelot plays it fast and loose with genre, historical authenticity, and good taste in general, but there’s a certain lack of cynicism about the proceedings that’s surprising for a show that, on the surface, seems like just another exploitative historical melodrama. It’s not easy, with all the silly one-liners, oddball plot twists, and frat-party ambience, to get terribly invested in who will win the power struggle that Camelot dramatizes. But if Fiennes and Green could stage a coup, wresting control of the show from its tawdrier impulses, then that might just be something worth watching.
Purefoy’s anachronistic expletive is by no means the only one that is uttered on Camelot, and midway through the second episode, Fiennes delivers something of a riposte to Lot’s dismissal. As Merlin watches Arthur valiantly striving to extract Excalibur from its famous stone, an old peasant approaches and begins to hector him about the impracticality of his plan. Merlin stares straight ahead, with a gleam in his eye, and as if in response to Purefoy and anyone else—like this critic, for instance—who might think this show not worth their time, he simply says, “Piss off.” Duly noted, Merlin.