Merlin: Season 5

merlinThe final season of Merlin is a bit of a mixed bag. The majority of the season was a bit of a slog and despite it having been a staple for dinner time entertainment over the last five years in our household, we all got sufficiently bored and frustrated with it that the delay before watching each episode got longer and longer until I eventually just sat and marathoned my way through the last four episodes over a month after they aired. (This review is a little bit spoilery in places)

The problem stemmed almost exclusively from poor writing. Plots became increasingly contrived and full of holes, anachronisms and mcguffins which meant that episodes gradually became completely overwhelmed by the sounds of sighing, grumbling and sarcastic commentary from my housemates and I.

The only saving grace of the season, was ironically the fact that it was the final one. I have a great deal of respect for the producers of Merlin and the BBC for calling time on the series before it slumped too far. Too many series drag on and on, getting less creative and more repetitive until they fade out in a damp squib, leaving any number of dangling plots and characters. For a show that endlessly waffles on about destiny, it was really important for the audience to be given a satisfying ending, to show how everything really played out.

The final few episodes of the series stopped pussy footing around and finally gave some solid content. Over 5 seasons of Merlin there are maybe a dozen episodes with real plot and character developments, as opposed to just little diversions and meanderings that didn’t go anywhere and were almost instantly forgotten by characters and audience alike. But those few episodes really were very good and made up for the diversions along the way. With the last three episodes, finally secrets are revealed, confrontations are had and destinies are achieved. Each of the characters got a satisfying and suitable resolution to their stories.

The frustration however is that as satisfying as those moments were, many of them didn’t really feel as if they were given enough time. I’ve spent five seasons waiting for Arthur to find out about Merlin’s magic and while the quality of the writing and acting for the revelation was very nicely done, I would have like a bit more quantity to it. I had also been hoping for some kind of showdown between Morgana and Arthur; her vendetta against him always felt rather too churlish and I wanted them both to have the opportunity to actually talk to each other. But Morgana was dispatched with relative ease after yet another dastardly plot stuttered to an ignoble end.

Overall I’d give Merlin a tentative thumbs up, I enjoyed the character growth and I was satisfied with the ending, but it is the very definition of “uneven”. It tried to be too many things, and while it did each with relative competence it always felt too much like the parts were fighting each other instead of complementing each other (as they do in Doctor Who for example). Much of the credit for the fact the show was watchable at all goes to its extremely charismatic and versatile young cast, ably supported by the veteran talents of Anthony Stewart Head (much missed this season) and Richard Wilson. It made for pretty entertaining Saturday evening entertainment, but while Doctor Who raises that to an art form, Merlin merely just got the job done.

Merlin is currently being repeated from the start on BBC 3 (iPlayer), or is available on dvd and bluray


Merlin: Season 4

Depending on where you are I’m either a long way behind reviewing this season of Merlin because it finished a couple of months ago in the UK, or a long way ahead, because it’s only just started in the US. Most of the TV blogs I follow are American (because most of the shows I watch are also American) so I’m revelling in the unusual situation at being able to laugh as the Americans jump on any hints and spoilers for where the series might go. Not least because a lot of them are grossly understating just how much is going to change this season.

Merlin is a complicated show to review. There’s so much going on and it’s set itself the difficult task of trying to be both a light hearted Saturday evening family show while dealing with a complex and grown-up mythology. Both the show and the eponymous hero have to walk the same narrow line, trapped between being an entertaining buffoon and being all serious and talking about destiny . The character has generally managed this contrast pretty well and this season has produced some satisfying moments where Arthur has finally begun to see and acknowledge Merlin as not just a loyal servant, but as a good friend and wise advisor.

The show meanwhile has historically dealt with the issue with less grace, often jarringly flip flopping from episodes about trolls with poor hygiene to seeing people struggling with deep questions of morality. This season has thankfully seen somewhat less of the bodily function jokes, but in exchange there has been an awful lot of angst and wallowing.

Don’t get me wrong, the characters, Arthur in particular, certainly had a lot to be miserable about and a little bit of sulking is only to be expected, but my abiding memory of this season is of Arthur moping about like an emo teenager. Many stories felt repetitive, endlessly finding new ways to challenge Gwen and Arthur’s relationship or having Arthur show his devotion to his people by sacrificing his own safety and happiness. And don’t get me started on the endless cycle of Morgana hatching an evil plan only to be thwarted over and over again. It felt like this season went on forever (hence the delay in posting this review, I got bored of watching and fell a few weeks behind in the middle), but it was only actually 13 episodes!

I enjoy watching the show each week, but when it comes to writing a review the things that spring to mind are all the little flaws and irritations. I have to force myself to remember that the dialogue is really very funny and the young actors are all extremely fun to watch (to be honest, it’s the adults in the cast that rather let the side down). I think maybe Doctor Who has rather spoilt my idea of what a Saturday evening show should be able to do.

Merlin: Season 3

Merlin is a great example of what the BBC excels at – the great British institution of Saturday evening family entertainment. American mainstream television doesn’t seem to have an interest in producing this stuff, but if the success of BBC America (and I guess syfy channel fair such as Warehouse 13 and Eureka), is anything to go by there’s definitely a market for it.

The Autumn season of Merlin is the perfect counterpoint to the spring season of Doctor Who – two shows which understand the balance between cheesy jokes and action for the kids, with character development and intricate backstory and mythology for the adults.

Merlin is more kiddie oriented than Dr Who, there are far more jokes about bodily functions and the plots are generally pretty straightforward. The villains are all about long lingering evil looks and flouncing about the place. The ‘next time on Merlin’ sequences were often eye-rollingly frustrating this season, the brief trailer for the next episode seemingly packed full of repetitive motifs (a character falls for someone who’s not what they seem) and crawlingly slow character development (Gwen and Arthur look longingly at each other again). But actually when the episode rolls around there was always something new and the episodes were always entertaining.

The key to Merlin is the interactions of the characters and the humour they find everywhere. The banter and teasing is played with perfect timing, both laugh out loud funny and feeling perfectly natural. The contrast of these lighter moments with the weight of destiny which is clearly pushing on them all is nice managed, the jeopardy never so much as to get overwhelming. There’s the added satisfaction of seeing the elements of Arthurian legend slowly come together, not starting from where you expect, but gradually working their way together. Merlin is one of the staple shows in my house –excellent storytelling (all be it occasionally working with somewhat repetitive plots), entertaining writing, charming acting, beautiful costumes and locations, and a healthy dose of people hitting each other with swords add together to make near perfect Saturday evening entertainment.

2008-2009 Television

I decided this year that rather than do a summary of my tv watching at the start of the year, it made more sense to do it in the middle, once all the ‘current’ seasons of stuff have wrapped for the year. It means almost all the US shows (which make the bulk of my watching) have completed their seasons and can be reviewed as a whole. Also, I basically failed to get round to doing this in January and after a while this excuse seemed valid.

A quick add up shows that I’ve watched approximately 400 episodes of television this year. That’s about 300 hours and it’s not including the stuff I’ve watched that wasn’t new this year or random stuff like Top Gear and documentaries, probably about half as much again. Just imagine the useful things I could have got done in that time!

So, here’s the list of this year’s shows I’ve watched:

  • Battlestar Galactica – Season 4
  • Being Human – Season 1
  • Bones – season 5
  • Brothers and Sisters – season 3
  • Castle – season 1
  • Criminal Minds – season 4
  • CSI – Season 9 (about halfway)
  • CSI:NY – season 6
  • Dollhouse – Season 1
  • Friday Night Lights – season 3
  • Gossip Girl – Season 2
  • Grey’s Anatomy – season 5
  • Heroes – Season 3 (Up to episode 14)
  • House – season 5 (Up to episode 21)
  • Lie to Me – Season 1
  • Mad Men – Season 2
  • Merlin – Season 1
  • NCIS – season 6
  • Primeval- Season 3
  • Pushing Daisies – Season 2
  • Stargate Atlantis – Season 5
  • Supernatural – Season 4
  • The Mentalist – Season 1
  • Torchwood – Children of Earth/Season 3
  • Warehouse 13 – season 1 (Up to episode 10)

This year’s new additions
This year’s new shows were either instant hits for me or instant misses, I started with ten, dropped three within a few episodes but will watch season 2 of the remaining seven. The Mentalist, Castle and Lie to Me are all fairly standard procedural type things, extremely watchable thanks to very strong leads (all male, where are the female leads?). Each of the shows has the danger of becoming too formulaic if the writers aren’t careful, but the first seasons were all very fun to watch.

Warehouse 13 (which is a midseason show, so only about 8 episodes in), Being Human and Merlin are an interesting triangle. Warehouse 13 is a fun concept that disappointingly looks and feels very cheap – the CGI is bloody awful, the writing is clumsy and dumb and the only saving grace is some enthusiastic actors who are doing more with the scripts than they deserve. Being Human meanwhile is a great concept that is charming and fun pushes the limitations of its budget and scope as far as humanly (or otherwise) possible and was much better than I expected. Merlin meanwhile was pretty much exactly as I expected, cheesy and ridiculous but an entertaining way to spend an hour on a Saturday night.

The final new show I’ve stuck with is Dollhouse, which got off to an extremely bumpy start but eventually kicked into gear and got very interesting in the second half of the season, finishing with a superb ‘finale’ that was actually never aired in the US. The blatant network interference to give more action and sex made a real dent in the interesting concepts that Whedon was trying to investigate through his customary quirky, fun and occasionally traumatising style. I’d also like to praise the casting, with Whedon extending his growing family of actors with some wonderful and non-standard additions.

Shows I gave up on this year include The Unusuals – a ‘quirky’ procedural that wasn’t nearly quirky enough. I watched the pilot of Fringe but didn’t get on with it, I might give it another try at some point though. Knight Rider gave itself away as painfully awful when about 5 minutes into the pilot they came up with the dumbest excuse ever to get their characters to strip to their underwear, and just continued to get dumber.

Tune in tomorrow for cops and robbers and medical mysteries.