NBC Conjures Merlin, the Once and Future Sorcerer
American networks have made a habit of swiping and remaking British programs, but the latest import from across the pond will be 100 percent authentic. Merlin (premieres Sunday, 8 pm/ET, NBC), loosely based on the Arthurian legends of the famed sorcerer, arrives stateside as the first British drama to air on a U.S. network — un-retouched, un-recast — since The New Avengers more than 30 years ago.
"I think we probably played a fast one on NBC!" star Bradley James tells TVGuide.com. "It's probably quite difficult to recast this one and remake it in an American way. Hopefully it goes over well and it will be worth NBC's while. We'll keep our fingers crossed."
James plays Prince Arthur on the fantasy, sword-fighting series. No, that's not a typo. It's Prince Arthur, not King.
Unlike past incarnations of the legend, Merlin follows the early years of the mythical wizard and the pre-golden age of Camelot, where, as the series opens, King Uther (Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Anthony Head) has outlawed magic. In the spirit of borrowing, the premise was inspired by that of Smallville.
"I'm not sure who Arthur's character would be, but you've got the obvious link between Clark Kent and Merlin. Those are the guys with the powers eventually," James says. "We have the advantage of building on what's worked for them. The producers have done a good job of recreating the story in a way that people want to tune in even though they know the legend."
As a Brit, James was familiar with the legend, but warns viewers will probably be unfamiliar with his Arthur — a spoiled, arrogant teen who clashes with his mentor Merlin (Colin Morgan). Naturally, as the 13-episode season progresses, so does their relationship — and Arthur himself. "Underneath this bravado, deep down he's got that inner strength and character," James says. "You have to scratch away at it, and with Merlin's help that becomes more evident. We're all aware of the man he'll become; it's just about how he gets there."
And he will get there, right? Currently filming Season 2, James says he doesn't know how long the show can go on for, opting to take the one-season-at-a-time mentality. "If you get it right more often than not, then the show can continue to grow," he says. "But I don't think anyone's interested in flogging a dead donkey, just relying on loyal fans."
Nor are they interested in deviating too much from the tale for a few extra years and extra drama. "How on earth are they doing [Smallville] without Lex Luthor?" James says. "We had a similar situation over here with Robin Hood where for some reason they killed off Maid Marian. It seems a bit daft to me when you know where the story's going and all of the sudden you change it a little bit so it can't get there.
"The producers might find themselves a way, if they need to, to kill me, but hopefully they won't do that! I think we're all enjoying ourselves at the moment. Things are going according to plan."