Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When Writing Goes Bad

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Confession: My husband and I watch Merlin, that BBC remake based loosely on Arthurian legend (and I do mean loosely).

We started because we were looking for new TV shows we could watch via Netflix or DVR - something to kill the winter weekdays because watching a 2 hour movie when you have to go to work the next day is not practical, especially since we often wouldn't get to start until 9:30 at night or later. And we typically enjoy programming from the BBC.

At first, the show was in that "so campy it was enjoyable" category. Yeah, this is not Mary Stewart's Camelot. I mean, Merlin and Guinevere started as servants, and magic was a crime punishable by death under Uther. Well, um, that's going to prove awkward. But we looked past that and just focused on the 40 minutes of mindless, campy entertainment.

When Uther finally died, we thought, "Okay, Merlin is going to start to come into his own now." No such luck. Okay, Arthur has found Excalibur, the Sword in the Stone. Here we go. Nope.

And for the past season and a half, the writing has just gotten bad. I mean, beyond bad. We're talking atrocious.

As a writer, the flaws just scream at me. Merlin isn't so much a powerful sorcerer as Morgana (whose abilities have been amplified in the TV show) is incompetent. What could be really clever plot twists fall into a rut - Morgana will be overconfident, causing her to overestimate the abilities of her allies and underestimate her foes, while Merlin fumbles his way to success. At least once a show, she gets the upper hand against Merlin and knocks him on his ass.

Speaking of Merlin, the awkward boy coming into his powers was cute at first, but now it's just annoying. He's the most powerful sorcerer of all time, the Druids have foreseen his coming and a new age for Camelot (they've even got a name for him, Emrys), and he's the last freaking Dragonlord, with the ability to command dragons. Yet Arthur routinely treats him like a half-wit, and he's more often dopey than dangerous. As I said earlier, Morgana's plots fail more because of her own incompetence than Merlin's power.

Oh, and Excalibur? Yeah, there's a show where Arthur's sword is enchanted so he will fall in a duel. Okay, this cannot possibly be Excalibur because don't tell me that Morgana has the power to enchant a sword forged in the dragon's breath. And if it isn't Excalibur, just what did Arthur do with it anyway?

The latest travesty is that Guinevere has been brainwashed by Morgana (okay, a stretch but I'll play along) and she convinces a visiting ruler to assassinate Arthur - after about 30 seconds of conversation. Say what? I  know that things have to be compressed for TV, but come on.

The characters have gone from being two-dimensional (which is bad enough) to one-dimensional, if that is even possible. We can fast forward through the boring parts and pretty much tell each other what happened and what is going to happen. Wasn't there an author who said something about trying to skip the boring parts? The dialog is flat, the premises outlandish, and the audience is being asked not to just suspend belief, but toss it out the window. Plots are foiled through coincidence and bumbling, not through any real actions on the part of the players.

All in all, it's become a brilliant example of what not to do as a writer - in any form and any genre. For that reason alone, I recommend suffering through an episode or two. It'll be painful, but you'll see exactly why it doesn't work. And hopefully you'll learn to avoid it.

But really BBC, please - when are you going to release Dr. Who Season 7 to Netflix?

Photo courtesy of ChibiChiii and used under Creative Commons


  1. Oh, thank you. I thought it was just me. My husband watches Merlin so I watched it with him for a couple seasons, but it's gotten so bad lately, I go do something else.

    1. Not just you. It was never one of the BBC's "great" shows, but it was fine for an hour of mindless, campy entertainment. This is their final season, and I'm not sure it's over (we've been DVR-ing from SyFy), but if not I'm not sure we'll finish it.

  2. I think I couldn't even get past the first one. :D

    1. At first it was an interesting (albeit unconventional) premise: What would happen to Merlin in a world where magic was illegal? But it's gotten so stupid that I'm not sure I even care any more. Wait, I am sure. I don't care.