Everyone who watches TV (or movies, or reads books, or whatever) has certain tropes that they find irresistable, to the point where if a story contains them, the quality of said narrative almost becomes irrelevant. For some reason, people don’t really like to admit to having these narrative kinks, probably because it makes them feel sort of slutty, taste-wise. It’s the intellectual equivalent of saying you’re only dating someone because they’re hot and the sex is good. I, however, will freely admit to having several very strong trope kinks that supersede the quality of a show for me; adorable established couples, the found family/island of misfit toys scenario, banter, scenery/cinematography porn, excessive amounts of whimsy, strong female character development, and rampant homoeroticism. Combine two or more of those and I’m pretty likely to get hooked on a show. I guess I’m just kind of slutty like that.
Merlin obviously hits quite a few of these – banter, scenery porn, whimsy, and more homoeroticism than an Ancient Greek epic. And while that last part in and of itself should be enough incentive for me to watch and love the show (and it often is, let’s not lie), I can never help but feel guilty that Merlin, like many shows who go for the whole gay-or-bromantic tease, tends to do that at the cost of kicking one of my other favorite tropes – development of strong female characters and relationships – in the face.
There are a lot of awesome things in the universe: cupcakes, small children giving pep talks on YouTube, that feeling you get when you finally change out of your clothes and into your comfy pajamas and most of all, being silly. It’s fun to be funny.
I’ve always been “the funny one” in my group of friends. Adults seemed to find me pretty entertaining too, but I’m unsure if they were laughing at me because I was tiny, precocious and sarcastic – or actually amusing. The point is, I’ve always had a talent for making people laugh. And for most of my life, I ignored that talent. There were even parts of my life where I tried to actively suppress it in order to be more grown-up or taken more seriously. This, along with trying to “paint” the walls of the dining room with craypas, was one of my dumber childhood decisions.
If you’d asked me at the time why I was doing what I was doing, I would have told you two things. The first thing I would have told you was that no one took you seriously if you were funny. (This is untrue – I’ll get to this later.) The second thing I would have told you was that I wasn’t funny. And I never would have said this out loud, but subconsciously, I would have believed I couldn’t be funny because I was a girl. And girls just weren’t funny
I tend to judge a show based not only on how glorious it can be at the apex of its awesome, but based on the quality of its filler episodes. Because let’s face it, there is no such thing as a show that doesn’t have filler episodes. And no matter how a show tries to hide it, you can always tell which ones they are, too. The better quality a show is, the less you care about the fact that they exist because they’re still completely delightful. The more the quality dips, the less it tends to dip during sweeps or premieres or finales, but during the filler episodes.
Merlin is a pretty good example of this axiom. The first season had almost no episodes that felt like filler even when they were. It might have, in part, just been shiny new-show smell. Seeing another tournament or magical creature wreak havoc didn’t feel as played out then because it wasn’t played out, yet. It is entirely possible that if some of the season 1 episodes aired next week, I’d go “what is this crap?” and feel totally unfulfilled. Season two’s filler was more obvious, but still highly enjoyable. Season three sank to near-unbearable levels of tedium and terrible writing during filler in spite of the phenomenal efforts during the premiere and finale.
This is the first episode of season four that has been filler, and I have to say, if this is going to be the state of filler for the rest of the season, we could very easily reach season two levels of campy mindless joy, if not season one levels. This is not to say that it was a deep episode or that there’s a lot to say about it — it wasn’t and there isn’t. Like, I feel bad for not being able to write my usual 1500 word feelings-vomit that occasionally brushes past actual philosophical depth, but this episode was just not the kind of episode that inspires that. Which is not to say it was bad, because it was a thoroughly enjoyable and Merlin-esque magical romp, it just wasn’t particularly deep.
I am not a very fast TV reviewer. I need at least six hours to fully process any show I’ve seen. I need to read other people’s reactions to see if I agree or disagree with them, re-watch it a few times, and let my brain digest all my thoughts and feelings before I can come up with anything coherent.
I suspect more writers are like me in this regard than you would think, but it’s hard to tell because, as a writer, you learn very quickly how to write about a show in a quick and easy formula. Shows tend to hit the same character and plot points over and over, so you form an unbreakable opinion on those points and stick to it. In a sick way, you kind of look forward to lackluster episodes, because it gives you a week off. If Merlin sucks, my column is pretty easy to write — blah blah the writing on this show is looser than [crude joke about your mother here], blah blah why do you hate on Merlin and Arthur’s relationship, blah blah that is not how you write female characters, blah blah lack of character continuity and plot coherency, blah blah but everyone on this show is really stupidly pretty anyway and I’ll be back next week to complain more because that’s just the kind of relationship this show and I have, blah blah blah.
We are three episodes into this season and by now I usually have at least partially written out some version of this column. In fact, usually the third episode is the first time I break it out, because the two-part openers tend to be good and the third episode tends to devolve into monster-of-the-week silliness. But this season, just as I’m cracking my knuckles and readying myself for another long column on how constantly teasing about super high stakes (a main character’s mortality, a magical reveal) and then pressing the reset button every damn time makes the high stakes completely irrelevant, and then they did something totally out of left field — Uther actually died.
There are certain things in my life that, while I know they are untrue and/or unlikely, I believe anyways, because they make my life either easier or just a better place to be. I know I’m not the only person who does this, because people continue to do things like go to Vegas or buy lottery tickets, but I do think I am the only person to have these elaborate scenarios involve television shows. For example, my current belief that I am operating under is that the entire Merlin writing staff has found every sentence I have ever written about the show and where I want it to go and what I want to see from certain characters and taken it to heart. Merlin staff meetings now all start with people going, “What would Julia do?” and then humming to themselves in a very thoughtful and British manner. I am, of course, aware this is untrue, but I believe it in the same manner I believed throughout my adolescence that those crappy top 40 love songs were really written all about me and my personal romantic anguish.
This is not just because Merlin and Arthur’s relationship this season has been the thing all my daydreams have ever been made of. And, per the vow I made at the beginning of this season, I will not continue to re-write the same column over and over about how perfect the two of them are together, or about how their facial nuances give me a lot of feelings. I will not do that even though it has occupied about 85% of my brain processes for the last 24 hours. Nor will I discuss in any detail that I have reached a point that I now believe you can’t watch this show and not come away convinced that Merlin and Arthur are in love with each other. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that once you have made it explicitly clear that two dudes consider each other the most important thing in the world that they would unquestioningly die for, the moniker of “bromance” seems somehow insignificant. But if that were really all I was basing my theory that the Merlin writers are now firmly committed to giving me everything I ever wanted, it would be a pretty weak theory, because at least a third of the people who are watching this show are rooting for the same thing.
When Eliza Coupe and Damon Wayans Jr. were asked how they keep themselves from laughing during takes of their sitcom Happy Endings, Coupe was more than happy to spill her secrets. “I keep a knife in my pocket at all times and just stab myself at all times when I’m going to laugh,” she said. “And it gets a little bloody, it’s a little weird. But I’m stabbing my leg during most of the show. So I developed gangrene in my right leg, but it’s fine. I’m cool with it.”
“I have a little needle that I keep in my skivvies,” Wayans said. “And when I’m about to laugh, right to the urethra, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, my leg’s about to be amputated soon,” Coupe sighed. “But you know, it’s worth it because I keep a straight face.”
In preparation for series four of Merlin, I read my old reviews of the show and made a promise to myself — I would not spend the entire season once again yammering on about Merlin and Arthur and how perfect they are both separately and together. I would not wax lyrical on their (b)romance and relationship. No, I would be a grown-up reviewer who wrote grown-up reviews, so let me be clear that this article is not about that. It is not about the warmth and affection that radiated off my computer screen every time the two of them were together, or how magnificently their relationship has evolved. It is not about their snarky back-and-forth, the lingering looks, and the meaningful non-conversations about feelings they at least attempted to have. It is not about the loud-pitched noises I made or how I spent most of the episode rocking back and forth and clutching my pillow.
It is about none of those things because, for once, I actually have nice things to say about the episode besides “the scenery/costumes are awesome” and “oh my god, Merlin and Arthur, oh my god.”