Friday, December 11, 2009


The wife and I are big fans of fantasy and sci-fi television. We try to seek out anything that has a vast supernatural conspiracy or a fleet of alien ships or a youth with a magical secret and epic destiny.

Thus, we have been watching the British series Merlin. It's been a weird ride and at the moment I'm sad to say that we're watching it for the entertainment value - just not the entertainment the writers had in mind.

The first series had a lot of promise. It establishes that the main character, Merlin, is something of a magical prodigy. Under the guidance of Camelot's court physician, Merlin must learn the secrets of magic in a kingdom where practicing magic is punishable by death. In one episode he saves young Prince Arthur's life and in reward, King Uther rewards him by making him Arthur's personal servant.

The most interesting choice has been the Lady Morgana. Anyone who knows even a little bit about the Arthurian legends (which includes me - really I only know a little bit) knows that Morgana is something of a villain. But in this nice little series she's the daughter of one of Uther's most trusted knights - a knight who fell in battle long ago and so Uther has been raising her as though she were his own. She's obviously got some magical talent manifesting itself in the form of prophetic dreams, but isn't really aware of it. Also, she isn't hard on the eyes.

Uther Pendragon is a treat - or perhaps I should be gushing about how wonderful it is to see Anthony Head in anything. Mr. Head is too good for this show. As Uther he portrays a king who feels a duty to protect his kingdom from the evils of sorcery - a zeal influenced over his own guilt over a spell of his own gone wrong with tragic consequences in the past.

By far the strangest choice has been Guinevere. Everything to do with her. There are three really strange choices and I don't know which is the most puzzling. The fact that she's a serving girl, that she's not terribly pretty or that she's black. So she's a peasant whereas the various Guinevere myths have her being of one noble birth or another. The actress, Angel Coulby, is pretty enough but not jaw-droppingly attractive - which is really odd when other characters act like she's the most beautiful person ever made. One wonders if her role was mixed up with Katie McGrath's. She is also black, which not only Guinevere certainly wasn't, which is a surprisingly populous heritage in old Camelot. Plenty of people emigrating to Camelot from the African continent and the middle east to Camelot - and apparently for generations given the complete absence of anything but modern British accents.

The first series opens up as very much Camelot 90210 with disappointingly uncreative monsters. The Producers of Merlin take two routes with monsters. They either take an everyday animal and make it very large or they take a mythical creature and make it boring.

Letting things go has been my greatest challenge. Each and every episode flies in the face of anything we know about history. Everyday average peasants in this show have a bizarre preoccupation with bettering their stations in life as though the thought crossed any of their minds. Here's a lesson from history by a layman (me): So you're living in the middle ages and you want to know what you're going to do with your life. Well, are you a woman? If you are then you will get married and have babies and perform labor that will never earn you any respect, or if your parents have enough money but you can't be married, a nunnery will buy your dowry. Are you a man? Well then you'll probably do what your father did or he'll convince an artisan to take you on as an apprentice and you'll do whatever he did. Yet in this show Peasants are wandering around hoping to prove themselves and improve their station in life, having existential crises about identity and destiny. People from that time didn't worry about what they would do with their futures; they barely thought of themselves.

Then there's impertinence. In every episode you see the commoners getting extremely familiar and demanding of Arthur, Uther and Morgana and the only peasant who ever gets into any real trouble for it is...Merlin! Every episode I see people saying things to their rulers that would have gotten actual peasants slapped at best, executed at worst.

So every episode I'm rolling my eyes and clenching my jaw and mocking the screen and then suddenly, holy shit suddenly, in the last few episodes of the season, it becomes a good show! Arthur and Merlin start to develop a friendship heavy with portent. Morgana and Uther share a moment that strengthens their bond and makes it obvious that right and wrong aren't usually simple concepts. Unfortunately overcoming the Big Bad seemed an afterthought to the writers and was accomplished easily and without any of the consequences Merlin was warned of.

Shelly and I were very excited to start the second series. We were immediately disappointed. They took all that good will that they had built up with us over the first series, pantsed it, and laughed at it.

Morgana has begun displaying a magical talent of her own and for absolutely no good reason the ancient and wily dragon and the wise old physician and the wise old physician's eyebrow all agree that she shouldn't be told that she has magic powers. Her magic is frightening her, driving her to take rash actions and coloring her perceptions of people, and they think she should be kept in the dark! Why? Because she's a girl! The writers don't know how to make a woman who is in reasonable, measured control of her power.

Bradley James as Arthur is not an unattractive boy. However, somehow in the second series he manages to find numerous excuses for shirtless dialogues.

Uther, in a stunning display of his inability to learn from history, always refuses at first to believe that the threat to his kingdom is magical. If it's brought to his attention he denies it until it's either impossible or too important to the plot to deny any further.

The biggest problem with the second series so far is that the writers are striving for a zero-sum result at the end of every episode. This is a thing that happens in television shows were nothing is lost and nothing is gained so that they can start the next episode fresh and in familiar territory. It's frustrating because very little if any character development happens. The series premiere was an excellent example of why it's a problem in a show where characters are supposed to be developing. In the first episode Merlin must defeat an ancient and powerful sorcerer, reincarnated in a new body. He goes to the dragon in the cave and the dragon promises to give him a spell that has never been taught to any mortal man. The writers could have really gone somewhere with that. One spell? I was excited. What would it do? Destroy the sorcerer's soul? Absorb him? Overwhelm him with pre-human magic? Nope, it put the evil sorcerer back in the little crystal that he came from in the beginning of the episode. Zero sum.

So we're going to keep watching it. No worries there. No doubt they're perfectly happy to know that we're watching, they don't need to know why we're watching, but for the sake of posterity (which is all this blog is for so far) at least half of the reason we keep watching is to mock it.



Thursday, December 3, 2009

Americans and Canadians

When I was in high school one of the issues of the day was the Americanization of Canada. Pundits and experts wrung their hands and spoke in hushed but urgent tones of the glut of American entertainment on our television, radio and movies. Radio and television stations in Canada are mandated by law to include a certain percentage of Canadian content, so we did get some exposure, but if we were going to be honest, while Canadian music had an urgency and goodly amounts of veritas, our television and especially our movies were usually uninteresting and filled more with Good Intentions than artistic expression or even the calculated shock and tantalization so typical of American television.

We were going to be culturally absorbed. America has a dramatic history filled with sedition, rebellion, violence, the conquering of a frontier. I don't know about most people, but during high school I had very little idea of the history of Canada.

So, like most kids, I knew more about American history than Canadian history, but there was one thing I knew really well: Television. I definitely spent most of my free time watching television. I sat down and cataloged the country of origin for every channel from 2 to 50 and it was about half Canadian. Probably more than half. I didn't see what the fuss was about then and I don't even worry about it a little bit now.

America, instead of forcing Canada to culturally conform, is changing so rapidly that America and Canada are becoming distinctly different.

I think the biggest difference between our nations is universal health care. It's so much a part of our culture that a lot of us don't give it much thought. I'm grateful for it and it took Michael Moore's movie, Bowling for Columbine to put it into a quote that could sum it up for me: "Everyone has the right to live." Even the most conservative orthodox economists among us wouldn't get rid of universal health care. Everyone knows someone who's better now because they were able to just go to a hospital and get something fixed. This means hardly anyone knows someone who's gone bankrupt because they couldn't pay their medical bills. I think this is a stark, stark difference between our two cultures.

Another aspect is language. Americans are simplifying English, turning it, gradually, into a new language called 'American'. It's small right now and the process is much slower than it has been in the past. I don't know exactly who's responsible for it, be it calculated marketing or stupidity or irreverence but in the U.S. 'through' is becoming 'thru'. Well, why not? More power to them as far as I'm concerned. It's an antiquated way of spelling, really, when you look at it it's a seven-letter word with three silent letters. In the past, the way language has evolved was when a small section of a larger group moved away from the larger group and was geographically separated. Then the new group would start developing unique lingo and as time wore on, the original group would develop unique lingo too, then lingo would start to become language and after a few hundred years, they would have trouble communicating with each other. This is harder to do now with instant global communication, but it is happening.

The third way is genetic heritage, particularly skin pigmentation. Americans are not only hyper-aware of skin color, they're incredibly self-conscious about that awareness. Racial tension runs deep in their culture. It doesn't here. Not at all. I'm not saying there are no bigots in Canada, there certainly are, but very little that would give a rapper cause to take to the mic in protest.

Point is, the more time goes by, the more different our two countries become and at the moment I'm quite okay with that.