There are stories (historical, semi-fictional, and entirely fictional) we are attracted to, that we return to, time and again: Odysseus and his travels; Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Octavian, and the fall of the Republic; King Arthur and his Knights; Henry VIII and his wives; Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; Othello; Napoleon (okay, I might be overemphasizing the general interest in this particular figure); WWII, Wolverine. Robin Hood is one of these stories: we all know the basic plot, have a general notion of the characters and our attitude towards them (a good rendering will broaden our attitudes of course), and we approach it with a sense of security since there is little chance of our being “surprised” by what we will get. The downside of being drawn to something in this way (with a greater interest in the how since the what is somewhat known) is that one experiences a great variety in the quality of expression.
This is not English Lit 101, so I am not going to go into the why of this phenomenon. For the tale of Robin Hood, personally, there is just a great deal of fun in it: running around the woods, smiting injustice, and (here I am basing my understanding on the Disney 2-demensional interpretation) singing. Let’s be honest, Robin Hood is the Batman of the time before indoor plumbing, and just kind of cool. So, even though in many respects BBC’s Robin Hood misses the mark, I don’t regret watching. The problem seems to be that it falls victim to its own cleverness: the elements that evidence a desire to be more substantive that a simple adventure narrative do not blend well with some of the over-the-top theatrics and simplistic characters.
I think I am about to fly in the face of popular opinion and say that one of the huge drawbacks of this show is the Sheriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen). As a character, rather caricature, he is utterly preposterous and Mr. Allen’s scenery chewing would make Al Pacino proud. I think he is supposed to inspire fear, and he does some really awful things like cutting out tongues and almost burning a child alive and such, but he is too ridiculous to take seriously. He starts out menacingly enough, crushing a bird in his bare hand, but with no attributes beyond love of money and love of inflicting physical pain, he remains completely undeveloped. Early on there is the possibility that they might be going for a Deadwood’s Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) type, but instead of increasing in personality he simply increases in vocal volume. The (unintentional) hilarity of the Sheriff makes him a decent foe, but not much of a foil for Robin.
But, there are some drawbacks with Robin (Jonas Armstrong) too, which indicate the problems with the show as a whole. Robin of Locksley has returned from Crusading with King Richard, due to a life threatening injury, as a changed man. He has read, and quotes, the Koran. (Which is problematic because at one point it is unclear if he understands Arabic and I just cannot believe there was an English translation by 1192. And that is not quibbling, because it is a significant dimension of his character, so there should be plausibility and continuity.) He no longer believes in any justification for a holy war and eschews killing (granted, in favor of injuring). His commitment to evaluate others based on their character and not on their class, creed, or gender is admirable, and leads him to allowing Djaq (Anjali Jay), a female Muslim, into the gang. The complication arises in the lack of complication. There is no counter-balanced viewpoint. Any mention or display of Christianity is either immediately mocked as ignorant superstition, or is so negligent that it is easily dismissed. Without two voices the potential for an intellectually and dramatically rewarding exploration of religious differences and human similarities is squandered, and reduced to somewhat heavy-handed didacticism.
The treatment of gender is similar. Djaq and Marian (Lucy Griffiths) are action-oriented, mind-speaking, free-choice-making women, but since they are really the only two regular female characters it is not apparent that there is anything special about them. The viewer can be relied upon to understand that women in the Middle Ages rarely played with swords (I suppose). But because all the elements of the show are weighted one side of any given argument the show is deprived of nuance and subtly.
On the other hand, there is evidence that I am asking for something Robin Hood never intended to give me, and is really trying to give me what I wanted in the first place; bright excitement, vicarious daring-do, and witty banter.
I almost stopped watching after the third episode, entitled “Who Shot the Sheriff?” If you are hoping that this episode didn’t end with the Sheriff’s potential assassin being caught by using a double and that they refrained from making the horrifyingly obvious joke about the whole situation, let me tell you right now that you are wrong. There is a deputy, he is shot instead of the Sheriff, and yes, they say it. This is an example of a failed attempt at levity (no laughing, just groaning), but this is the low-point.
In general, the more whimsical elements entrance the viewer. Every episode ends with a still shot in black and white, and it is always horrendously cheesy (longing /knowing looks, toasts to comrades, etc.) but it sends the viewer off with a bit of silly, good-triumphed-euphoria. It suspends disbelief that Robin and his men get tricked as many times as they do, but it is immensely entertaining to see how little effort it takes for them to slip past the Sheriff’s guards and spoils his plans. The fight scenes boarder on Jack-Bauer-invincibility, but they are quite well choreographed and filmed, and dispersed appropriately throughout the episodes so as not to appear redundant or boring. Furthermore, the score is properly vivacious and heroic, tonally complementing the action.
Essentially, the experience of Robin Hood, Series One is disorienting, and not in a successful way. The individual pieces have merit enough, but there seems to be no cohesive vision, which tends to make those pieces feel at extremes and disjointed. The comedy feels too light, the seriousness seems too truncated (even shallow), and characters seem at turns too smart and too dumb.
I said earlier that I do not regret watching this show, and despite my criticism I stand by that. While not perfect, there is plenty of room for this show to improve, and even if it doesn't, it is plenty enjoyable as it is. My friend Asian KP told me that Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage), who I didn’t mention here despite the fact that he is a major character, was voted the “most interesting current TV character.” After Series One I am not in a position to agree, but this tells me that maybe Series Two stabilizes what was shaky and dispenses with what was unnecessary. Or I have grossly underestimated the moron levels in the population.
And finally, a casting tangent. How to put this delicately, and not sound like a completely shallow bitch? Jonas Armstrong is not a handsome man, but very charming (even though Robin and Marian are a tad cold). I point this out not as a flaw, but as a strong (if maybe surprising) choice. It allows for a clearer sense that Robin persuasive ability is based upon his integrity rather than physicality, and corresponds to the show's thematic concern with who a person is rather that what a person is. Not the most important thing for me to leave you with, but I thought it was worth noting.
We will see what Series Two brings.
The TV Girl
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- I guess you would like to know a little bit about the person making all these proclamations upon good taste and horrid characters. I'm Andrea and when I was 15 I fell in love. An hour after meeting "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" I was forever altered in the way only love can, and I never questioned for one minute afterwards that television offered me an amazing chance to experience lives and moments that I could never imagine. So now, when I'm not getting distracted by my real life, I write about TV. I also read, am finishing a Master's degree in English Literature, travel, am attempting to learn vegan cooking, am the 5th of 6 children, and drive my roommate nuts by constantly cleaning our already clean apartment. Now that we're old friends, time for you to take my opinions as the be all and end all.