King Arthur, "Smallville"-style?
That's one way to frame the British import "Merlin," the series airing Sunday nights on NBC that takes the once and future king from Camelot and presents him as a still-learning prince, just as "Smallville" has, for nine seasons, given viewers a young Clark Kent still being forged into the Man of Steel.
"What happens if we look at Arthur and Merlin before they become the men that they become?" is how the premise is summed up by Anthony Head, who stars as King Uther Pendragon, the father of Arthur. He added: "How do they affect each other when they grow up?"
Head is familiar with the portrayal of mentor and powerful protege in a fantasy setting -- for many fans, Head will always be known as Rupert Giles, the Sunnydale High School librarian who is the Watcher for Buffy Summers in Joss Whedon's cult classic "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
"It isn't 'Buffy,' but it has that same breadth of appeal that 'Buffy' had," Head said. "It's lighthearted and somehow appeals to all ages."
"Merlin," based on the Arthurian legend, follows the adventures of a troubled Prince Arthur (played by 24-year-old Bradley James, a Devon, England, native) and the young wizard Merlin (23-year-old Irish actor Colin Morgan). The show reaches its double-episode season finale Sunday while Head and company are at work on Season 2.
The Knights of the Round Table have been taken for a spin again and again in pop culture. Not only is there the famed 1960s Lerner and Loewe musical "Camelot" (and the film adaptation in 1967 with Richard Harris) and the 1963 Disney feature "The Sword in the Stone," there's sterner stuff, such as John Boorman's startling 1981 fantasy "Excalibur" and the 1995 romance "First Knight" with graybeard Sean Connery (Arthur) jousting with Richard Gere (Lancelot) for the love of Julia Ormond (Guinevere).
Head said more than five years were put into crafting a Camelot that was rooted in the tales of Arthur but also fresh enough to stand apart from the many previous versions.
"Because the Arthur legend as we know it has been done to death, everyone knows what will happen next," Head said. "The point is to see how things are made up that will eventually be the legend and the story that we know."
Amid the unicorns, wizards, magic and mythical Camelot, the 13-episode series illustrates Arthur's coming of age and Merlin's learning to be a sorcerer while living under Uther's ruthless laws banning magic.
"This is a great way of opening up the whole idea of Camelot and just adding a dash of sword and sorcery to color it up," Head said. "It's a long way away from the original Arthurian legend."
Despite having traditional elements like Excalibur and familiar characters like Guinevere and Lancelot (who in the legend eventually have an illicit affair), the story also converges on Uther, who has usually been a fleeting figure on the periphery of Camelot stories.
Uther plays a more pivotal role here, Head said, as the old-fashioned father and ruler dealing with a country that is falling apart.
Although an antagonist, Uther gives Merlin access to Arthur, makes Morgana his wayward ward and lays the foundation for his son to be future king of Camelot.
"Merlin" is the first British drama in more than 30 years to bypass PBS and BBC America and head straight for a major American network. The show has not been a ratings sensation by any means, but its steady viewership of 4 million still puts it ahead of well-regarded genre shows on cable.
"There's much more readiness to try stuff out," Head said. "NBC bought the show on the spot, sight unseen. When you look at that show you think, 'Why the hell didn't anybody think about this before?' It's beautiful and so magical. It's the romance of knights and armor. It's the thing that as a child I loved: knights and chivalry and things that went with it."