The teenage retakes of the classics continue with Merlin: The Complete First Season (BBC), a retelling of the King Arthur legend as a coming-of-age tale centered on the young, untrained peasant sorcerer Merlin (Colin Morgan) who comes to Camelot to work as a physician apprentice and ends up servant to arrogant young prince Arthur (Bradley James), son of King Uther (Anthony Head, of “Buffy” fame). Looking like a mix of overgrown kid and outcast Elf, Morgan’s Merlin is an impish, headstrong young man still a bit short on wisdom, but he’s tasked by an ancient dragon (yes, there’s a dragon in the dungeon with the voice of John Hurt) to prepare the cocky frat-boy of an Arthur for his destiny. There’s also a young Morgana (Katie McGrath), King’s ward and future sorceress just discovering her powers, and a lady in waiting known as Gwen (Angel Coulby), short for (you guessed it) Guinevere. Who knew they all met so early? Just to shake things up a bit we get Merlin and Gwen making shy sideways glances at one another, but it’s pretty tame stuff. This is no bodice ripper.
We have a vicious nemesis in the sorceress Nimueh (Michelle Ryan, who clearly enjoys being the sexy bad girl even without much substance to her role), who has dedicated her dark arts to taking revenge against Uther, plus the obligatory appearance of Lancelot and the forging of Excalibur along Merlin’s education, but this has neither the creativity nor the strong dramatic stakes of the best British genre shows (just look at the new blood in Doctor Who to see what’s possible) or the sexy distraction of Hex (the silly but guiltily entertaining high school witch series that this team created a few years before). What about Merlin as Arthur’s wizened tutor, living his life backwards so that he doesn’t predict the future, he merely remembers it? Forget it, this medieval fantasy series is a mix of pop mythology and young adult melodrama, BBC style. Originally produced for British TV, the first series unexpectedly popped up on the NBC 2009 summer schedule, but it’s really more compatible with a SyFy Channel audience, which is exactly where the second season is now running.
13 episodes on five discs, with commentary on every episode by members of the cast and creative staff and “Merlin: Behind the Magic,” a two-part, hour-long overview of the series and the production. Not much meat or insight here but lots of cast interviews and production footage. Also includes the breezy 15-minute featurette “The Black Knight” and 47 minutes of “Video Diaries” from Colin Morgan, Bradley James and other cast members among the supplements.
The British mini-series The Take (BFS), based on a novel by Marina Cole, is a gritty gangster drama with familiar generational conflicts and power struggles dropped into the distinctly British underworld. Otherwise it isn’t much different from the American brand of gangster family tales. Tom Hardy is convincing as the ambitious, ruthless and utterly self-absorbed sociopath Freddie, a manchild of a killer who steps out of jail and back into the family business, but he’s without redeeming qualities and his repugnance and sneering jealousy makes it hard to care about him. The story really should be about his loyal cousin Jimmy (Shaun Evans), a model of self control and practical smarts who tries to keep him check until his crimes hit too close to home, but Freddie eclipses Jimmy in every scene. Brian Cox is another matter. He brings a mix of paternal affection and cagey manipulation to the family godfather Ozzy who is trying to run things from behind bars and sees his power slip with every reckless impulse the Freddie acts upon. The story swerves through scenes of grotesque violence, furious vengeance and memorable jabs of senseless tragedy, most (if not all) of it directly or indirectly spawned by Freddie, but while it has a narrative neatness to it, there’s little emotional commitment to these characters from the filmmakers, even the wives damaged by Freddie’s neglect and abuse. The four-part, three-hour production is spread to two discs. Also features brief video interviews with author Martina Cole, stars Shaun Evans and Brian Cox, and two with screenwriter Neil Biswas on two key scenes from the show, each under three minutes.
Earl Hamner (of The Waltons fame) created Falcon Crest: The Complete First Season (Warner), a night-time soap of business shenanigans, feuding families and power struggles in the wine empires of California vineyards. But when you come down to it, this hit eighties series is pretty much “Dallas” in wine country, with Jane Wyman as the obligatory old Hollywood class act playing the all powerful matriarch and Robert Foxworth as the maverick nephew who returns home after the death of his father, ready to take on the Channing family empire at its own game on 50 acres of inherited land. Lorenzo Lamas is the family playboy and show’s obligatory series hunk, Mel Ferrer signs on for a recurring role as the family attorney and Lana Turner makes her first guest appearance on the show this season. 18 episodes on four discs in a standard case with hinged trays.
The Tiger Next Door (First Run) – Former biker turned wild animal breeder Dennis Hill had his license to breed and keep exotic animals (mostly tigers) on his residential property (though it’s more rural than urban, his Flat Rock, Indiana spread is technically residential and he has plenty of nearby neighbors) revoked in 2006. This documentary, originally broadcast on Animal Planet, profiles this colorful and committed character and contrasts his screed against the government shutdown with a thoughtful portrait of the business of captive wild animals and the reality of the conditions most animals face. Sure, he appears to really love these animals, but that doesn’t change the sometimes miserable conditions of their pens (especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) and all the libertarian proclamations in the world can’t obscure the right—nay, the obligation—to protect these animals. He’s just the tip of the iceberg: though no hard numbers are available, it is estimated that there are more tigers in private captivity in the United States than there are in the wild, and the inconsistent laws on the books about keeping and breeding wild animals in captivity result in a lot of abuse and neglect and disasters that end in injury and sometimes death, both for humans and animals. They are beautiful animals and its easy to see the attraction to owning such a creature, but as this film makes clear, it’s the animals that suffer in the end. Features deleted scenes and a resource guide.
Also new this week: Haunted: The Complete Series (Phase 4) with Matthew Fox as a private eye who communes with the spirits of the dead and the documentary Earth Days (PBS).