The Arthurian legend has been retold so frequently (if seldom well) that refreshed permutations are inevitable — the latest being “Merlin,” an imported fantasy the Brits quaintly call a “tea time” show. The designation proves appropriate, since this is a rather tepid drink, reshaping the wizard and his charge Arthur into teenagers. Seemingly meant for kids if the not-very-magical effects are any indication, NBC appropriately scheduled this light drama Sundays, where a two-hour premiere will conjure a serialized summer run — after which, one assumes, “Merlin” will disappear without much lamentation.
NBC actually did its own “Merlin” miniseries a decade or so back, but any similarities end there. Here, a teenage Merlin (Colin Morgan) is dispatched to Camelot by his mother, where King Uther (“Buffy’s” Anthony Head) has successfully banished magic, having captured a talking dragon two decades before.
In the temporary custody of the kindly Gaius (Richard Wilson), Merlin has magical powers he must hide. He also quickly butts heads with the arrogant, entitled Prince Arthur (Bradley James, hunky enough if the Disney Channel’s talent stable is your idea of royalty), before the aforementioned dragon (voiced by John Hurt) informs Merlin that he and Arthur have a shared destiny.
The first two hours both bring a new semi-mystical threat, forcing Merlin to surreptitiously use his innate (and thus far unexplained) skills to thwart them. Like certain other British fantasies that have found their way Stateside, it’s harmless enough, but alas, nothing onscreen ever approaches the majesty and bombast of Rob Lane’s hard-working score.
Other familiar names pop up — such as Gwen (Angel Coulby), a maid to the lady Morgana (Katie McGrath) — but for anyone who knows even the slightest bit about Arthurian lore, everything here is a pallid Calvin Klein version that feels more suited to Saturday-afternoon syndication than primetime.
Then again, such distinctions are quickly fading as networks adapt to new economic realities. That includes the dragon, which despite the touch of class lent by Hurt’s gravelly baritone dispenses advice in Yoda-like riddles and looks not much better than the scaled occupants of the original “Land of the Lost.”
In some respects, the dissolving of TV borders is a laudable thing, given the U.K.’s flair for costume dramas. It’s just that “Merlin” is clearly shopping for tricks in the bargain bin, and like the song says, the new Camelot’s shining moments are all too brief, indeed.