Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MERLIN and the strange comfort of formula

I don’t talk about TV very much on this page because I’m not usually that interested in it and I don’t have very many must-see shows nowadays. But Jeff and I have been faithfully viewing the new TV series Merlin. I think it’s one of those mid-season replacement shows, with thirteen episodes in the queue, and I haven’t heard whether or not it’s been picked up for a full season. While it’s not so good that I’d tell everyone that they need to be watching it, there are two things about it that I like and which keep me coming back.

One of those things is simply that Jeff also likes it, and it’s ended up being a TV event that we can share. There haven’t been any of those since Battlestar Galactica ended and Medium went on summer hiatus. Since so much of our time “together” in the house is spent by him relaxing with TV that I’m not interested in (mostly HGTV and DIY shows, and his recent addiction to endless block-reruns of 90210 on SoapNet) while I concentrate on the computer and its myriad wonders (which he is not interested in). So there is a homey comfort in settling down in the same room and doing the same thing, even if it’s just watching a silly TV show and dishing about it as it happens. It’s also an odd choice of show for us to both be willing to watch: neither one of us is particularly into magical fantasy and I have never mustered up much interest at all in Arthurian legend in particular (confession: I’ve never read Mists of Avalon). But I think we would both admit that part of the appeal of the show is that we think the dudes are cute, and we enjoy the silly str8-boy romance between Merlin and Arthur that seems ready to flame up into full-on gayness at any second. I haven’t checked, but I’d be shocked if there wasn’t already some Merlin slash-fic online somewhere.

The other thing I have to admit that I like about Merlin is the thing that would probably be considered its biggest weakness by someone looking at it with a critical eye: it is utterly formulaic. Each time we start a new episode, we know basically how it is going to play out from beginning to end: 1) a magical source of evil/danger appears; 2) Merlin uses his own magic (which he must keep secret) in an impulsive but good-hearted way; 3) Gaius reprimands Merlin for being careless with his magic and risking exposure of his gift; 4) the evil/danger situation escalates; 5) Someone speculates that the danger is from a magical source (Merlin already know it is); this is roundly rejected by the authorities (“Magic!? Ridiculous!”); 5) Somehow it becomes clear to Merlin, often after speaking with the dragon, that the Evil means to kill Arthur (Arthur is always under threat of death and it is Merlin’s purpose in life to save him); 6) Everything starts coming to a head and eventually even Gaius must allow that Merlin ought to use his magic (discreetly) to save the day; 7) Merlin saves Arthur’s life.

That sequence plays out more or less like that in every installment. So it seems like it would be tediously predictable, right? For some reason, however, I find this strangely comforting. It’s a comfort very similar to the comfort found in simply viewing it with Jeff. It’s counter-intuitive, because the fun of it for me is not in being surprised by anything that happens (like it often was with Galactica) but in knowing how it will all work out, and that it will work out just fine by the end of the hour. In this way, it’s a lot like Medium, another show we watch together, in which you can count on essentially the same plot progression happening in every episode—though they switched that up a bit last season by modifying the titular character’s abilities and having more two-part cliffhanger episodes.

So, for as long as it lasts, I expect that we will have a TV night in the schedule.

[The image is of actor Bradley James, Arthur in Merlin].

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