Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
From two of the creators of Merlin comes a new fantasy adventure series with a familiar structure. In a far-off land a stranger comes to town, a hero with a great destiny who is unfamiliar with the local customs. The hero makes friends with another misfit or two, and they team up to face mystical problems. He meets legendary figures that turn out to be somewhat less than their reputations. There’s a Draconian king, a rebellious princess figure, and mythical beasts galore. Yes, Atlantis is basically Merlin, but that’s no knock.
Specifically, Atlantis is a family show about a 21st-century oceanographer named Jason (Jack Donnelly) who travels via bathysphere to the sunken site where his father disappeared and gets sucked into a vortex. Washing ashore naked in an ancient city called Atlantis, he finds himself surrounded by English speakers with various British accents. And that’s not all: One of the first things he sees in the city is a multi-headed lizard. Clearly this thing is more Harryhausen than Herodotus, and it’s all the better for it. Jason accepts his new life with almost no questions asked, the better to get this show on the road. He’s still searching for details about his father, still thirsting for specifics from The Oracle (Juliet Stevenson) about what exactly this Great Destiny is that she keeps yammering on about. The premise is so boring it hurts—all non-intrigue, family melodrama, and prophecy.
But that’s just the background, and some of that actually manages to pick up steam fairly quickly. Mainly, though, Atlantis is a buddy comedy about Jason and his new pals, skinny nerd Pythagoras (Robert Emms) and drunken lump Hercules (Mark Addy). “The triangle guy?” Jason asks Pythagoras upon introduction. Yes, Atlantis is a revisionist who’s who of classical Greece. Jason has a glancing familiarity with names like Pythagoras and Medusa, but he keeps his knowledge to himself, including the fact that he’s from the 21st century, another solemn nod to the sanctity of destiny. When Jason defeats the Minotaur—with apologies to poor Theseus—he and his friends become heroes for hire and the show gets a real engine, one powered by the comic tension between credit-hog Hercules and background hero Jason who just might have superpowers. Watching the trio of friends give and take is such a delight that it’s a bit of a comedown when women start joining the fold as love interests. Not that television needs more majority-male casts, but Jason in chaste, mythological love feels paint-by-numbers next to Jason bonding with Pythagoras.
In its kid-friendly adventures, Atlantis calls to mind U.S. syndicated adventure shows of the ’90s, not just Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but also Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s a versatile beast, a world where the heroes can rewrite a Greek myth one week and suffer relatively realistic serfdom the next. No sign of Pegasus or the Argo yet, much less Dionysus and Poseidon, the gods most often name-checked in this city of water and sacrificial rituals, but all in due time. Atlantis has its semi-serious moments; Jason loves to rail against The Oracle, who’s actually quite forthcoming about everything other than the main event. But mostly Atlantis is a rollicking good time, a mixture of pulp fantasy and mystery adventures à la Sleepy Hollow and Thor.
If that sounds a lot like Merlin, well, the producers have made two very important tweaks to the magic recipe: a keen sense of humor and a hero prone to displaying his physique for the camera as if posing for a statue. The former might have something to do with the third mind behind Atlantis (in addition to Merlin’s Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy), Misfits’ creator Howard Overman. Not that Atlantis ever goes beyond wholesome family-entertainment tomfoolery into the cheekiness of Misfits. The humor on Atlantis is more in the vein of friendly banter and guys falling down. But when it’s Addy waking up in an alley with a pig licking his face, realizing late that he’s not with a woman, and vainly trying to get his bearings, it’s pretty funny even for adults.
As for the latter, the show knows a thing or two about archetypes, if not from Greek mythology then from the B-movie pastiches it spawned. Jason is a fount of virtue, always doing the right thing no matter the cost. Pay no mind to why he abandons his old life without even asking about how to get back or why he just waits off-screen until adventure comes his way. He can turn a phrase, but Pythagoras is the real smart aleck, and Hercules is all physical comedy until some interesting character developments in the early going. Half-Sudanese Alexander Siddig plays the evil king with some uncomfortable connotations given the history of evil Arabs in European culture, but he’s a curious villain so far, locked in a sort of passive-aggressive feud with his city’s new hero, and Siddig is a kick. Really, though, it’s his queen (Sarah Parish) trying to bring down Jason, and what with the gradual influx of female roles, Atlantis is shaping up to be richer than it seemed at first in all sorts of ways.
The best thing about the storytelling is that each new episode of Atlantis deepens the show without elaborate serialization. It isn’t that Jason is at the center of a complex mythology. It’s more like he’s gradually coming to understand his new world. The writers are exploring the city and locating it on a map relative to forests and temples and such. They’re filling out the citizenry as fast as budgets will allow, and when the universe starts to feel small, that’s because they’re playing with the Jason-Pythagoras-Hercules dynamic. It’s too soon to say Atlantis has a great destiny, but the signs are promising.
Developed by: Johnny Capps, Julian Murphy, and Howard Overman
Debuts: Saturday, November 23, at 10 p.m. Eastern on BBC America
Format: Hour-long fantasy adventure
Three episodes watched for review