The fantasy category is getting crowded on TV, which makes sense, given the phenomenal success of “Game of Thrones.” The Esquire Network has girded itself for battle with “Beowulf,” swords-and-sorcery retelling of the ancient monster tale and the network’s second scripted outing. This version of the saga is lively enough and boasts a few bracing storytelling choices, but it’s unclear if the derivative and somewhat predictable drama will be enough to put the network on the map.
The highest-profile member of the cast is William Hurt, who is seen in a flashback role as the former ruler of the ancient kingdom of Herot. Hurt’s scenes are strangely listless and unexciting, as if the actor could barely believe that his career had led him to the set of this low-budget genre series. Far less detached is Kieran Bew, who plays the titular hero with capable brio. Beowulf returns to Herot after a period of exile, but the long memories of his former associates — not to mention the presence of some frightening beasts — prevent a peaceful reunion.
Like most shows in this genre, “Beowulf’s” success will depend in large part on two factors: It needs to have characters capable of building up enticing intrigue in the halls of power, and its scenes of battle and blood must be stirring and distinctive. In the arena of court intrigue, unfortunately, the weakest element of the new series is readily apparent. Ed Speleers of “Downton Abbey” plays Slean, a nobleman whose one-note opposition to Beowulf gets old very fast. Though Joanne Whalley is fine as a put-upon thane, her role is somewhat thinly written in the first episode.
That said, the interiors of Herot’s royal hall are a delight for the eyes, and, as is the case with “The Shannara Chronicles,” another recent fantasy offering, scenes set in the outdoors are handled with efficient energy and flair. There are other elements that set this drama apart as well. In one entertaining subplot, one of Beowulf’s friends finds himself increasingly entangled with a mother and daughter who boast quickly and effectively sketched feisty personalities. It’s a relief to watch a fantasy epic that has a bit of a sense of humor and allows its mythical characters to also act like regular human beings much of the time.
As a side note, both of the women in that subplot are not white, and David Ajala, a black U.K. actor, is a series regular on “Beowulf.” As was the case with “The Bastard Executioner,” truly diverse casting adds to the specificity of the world that the drama creates on screen. In this regard, “Beowulf” also stands in contrast to many other shows in this realm, which often appear to think that dragons and wizards can only interact with Caucasian actors.
Based on its pilot, there’s no reason to think that “Beowulf,” for all its scrappy energy, will necessarily displace “Vikings” as the dominant show in the subgenre of realistically bloody and yet magically infused fantasy. To its credit, whatever its other occasional storytelling problems, the generally admirable “Vikings” is able to create an evocative atmosphere that allows it to explore both brutal violence and mystical communion with the gods with equal ease. “Beowulf” isn’t quite at that level, and another element holding it back is the look of its monsters, which are glimpsed quite a few times in the first episode. Some of the show’s computer-generated interiors are impressive, but when it comes to the fantastical beasts, there are a number of moments in which they look plastic-y and unreal.
Still, for fans of fantasy, this might be worth a try; there’s just enough of interest to make one wonder if Beowulf’s future alliances and aspirations will place it within striking distance of “Vikings,” on par with the enjoyable “Shannara Chronicles” and maybe ahead of BBC America’s very similar drama, “The Last Kingdom.”