Spiritually closer to “The Tudors” than the simple-minded camp of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” — which helped put Starz’s original programming on the map — “Camelot” presents something of a double-edged sword. While stately and reasonably smart, the first three episodes unfold at a less-than-galvanizing pace, featuring a young King Arthur whose appeal seems more calibrated to please the “Twilight” demo than action-craving men. Despite that dichotomy, the show’s not bad — buoyed by an especially lusty performance by Eva Green as Morgan — the caveat being Starz must make clear its latest sword-wielding international co-production scratches a slightly more refined itch.
For students of the Arthurian legend, it’s always a bit disorienting sorting through the various wrinkles each new rendering brings to the mythology, from the musical to the animated Disney version to “Excalibur.”
At least initially, writer-producer Chris Chibnall has put his own unique stamp on reorganizing the pieces. The glowering Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) is still an integral part of the story, but his magic is different this time around, and his impenetrable ways even harder to read than usual. The same goes for Arthur’s half-sister Morgan (Bond girl Green), who occupies the juiciest role and wears it quite handsomely.
By contrast, the weak link here is “Twilight” co-star Jamie Campbell Bower as the young king — a difficult part, admittedly, given that during the first couple of hours he’s understandably mystified to discover his noble origins.
In this telling, Arthur is a pampered brother to Kay (Peter Mooney), not his squire, having been raised from birth by a humble family thanks to Merlin’s machinations. When his biological father, King Uther, suddenly dies (a victim of Morgan’s treachery), Merlin drafts Arthur to fulfill his destiny, counseling him as the revelation of this heir thrusts Arthur into conflict not just with Morgan — who covets the throne herself — but with the bloodthirsty King Lot (guest James Purefoy, playing a character very similar to the one he did in “Rome”), with whom she forges an uneasy alliance.
Chibnall’s take is less overtly magical than paganistic, with Morgan and Merlin possessing vague powers but seldom exercising them — and paying a physical toll whenever they do. Still, both magic and swordplay crop up sparingly in the early going, and the third hour — when Arthur’s court begins taking shape, and Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) enters the scene — might be the slowest of the three.
Shrewdly cast and handsomely shot in Ireland, the series will launch with a two-hour premiere. There’s such an abundance of material surrounding the Camelot legend that the maiden 10-part season certainly needn’t worry about lacking for stories; nevertheless, Bower’s callow boy king has a whole lot of maturing to do, pretty rapidly, if he’s going to comfortably grow into that crown.
“Everything you are right now is because of me,” Merlin snaps at one point. “Remember that.”
Actually, “Camelot’s” other modest enchantments notwithstanding, that’s the one part you sort of wish you could forget.