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Swashbuckling Wizard

Just when a hero is needed, along comes the crafty, brave, even virtuous 'Merlin,' with a bag of tricks.


If creating great fun is a barometer, NBC is closing in on the Holy Grail.

Steeped in enough gore for several tall tales, its new "Merlin" may be a little savage, or even creepy, for the younger set. So parents--and others who have a low tolerance for seeing people impaled on sharp points--be alerted.

Nonetheless, helped by winning special effects, director Steve Barron has made "Merlin" as visually big and showy as the small screen gets, an artful merging of many myths into a glittery, creative, entertaining, swashbuckling fantasy of romance and sorcery in ancient Britain--one centering not mainly on King Arthur, Lancelot and the rest of that crowd but on the wizard himself.

NBC is making Sunday night classics its turf. Here's the scorecard so far: "Merlin" is much better than the recent "Brave New World" and last season's "The Odyssey," and about level with the swell "Gulliver's Travels" of 1996.

Even without a wand and pointy hat, Sam Neill's Merlin is as crafty and resourceful as he is kind and virtuous--a bit of a brick at times but also a regular magic maven who can summon bees from a hive when needed (and then appreciatively thank them for assisting) and silence shouting demagogues with a sweep of the hand. Merlin can do nearly everything but stop his talking white horse, Sir Rupert, from sounding like Mr. Ed.

Or fix the absurdly tidy ending stitched onto this otherwise praiseworthy two-parter.

Here's the scene: Britain is in chaos. Clanky knights and knaves are falling everywhere, and the land is ankle deep in blood, cruelty, guile and ambition. It seems that the Christians and pagans are at it again, with the sterling goodness epitomized by Merlin and his golden protege, Arthur, really ticking off their nemesis, the nasty Queen Mab, a scheming witch whose own magic is so strong that things look a bit dicey for the Christians in this titanic struggle.

Time for heroes. The Christians have Merlin and they have Excalibur, the magic sword that Arthur (Paul Curran) claims from "the rock of ages" and uses to defeat the barbaric Lord Vortigern (Rutger Hauer), who dies magnificently, by the way. But they don't have Mab's fairies and elves, nor her stereophonic throatiness and magnetic presence in front of the camera.

Although NBC's Merlin hasn't nearly the campy edge of Nicole Williamson's wizard in the John Boorman film "Excalibur," and Curran is a low-wattage Arthur, Miranda Richardson's hissing Mab lights even the darkest, gloomiest crevices of the realm with her deliciously sexy and sinister brand of self-mocking menace. Richardson, who also plays Mab's pristine sister, the Lady of the Lake, is winking all the way here, aware just how near she is to parody.

Mab's mission: to preserve the old ways of paganism, which will require gaining control of Britain and giving Merlin his comeuppance. Like, fat chance.

And ever at her side (and obscured behind splendid makeup) is scene-stealing Martin Short as the hilariously smarmy Frik, Mab's grotesque toady of a gnome whose vocal intonations and refined hip swiveling are a subtle homage to Ed Grimley.

Before the script (by David Stevens and Peter Barnes, from a story by Edward Khmara) ruins him by granting him a conscience, Frik is just a hoot, at one point even getting to tell a joke: "Elves are so short they're the last to know it's raining."

Not around nearly enough, though, is Helena Bonham Carter as that plotting vixen, Morgan Le Fey, whose own lust for power is insidiously exploited by Mab and whose seduction of her half-brother, Arthur, later yields the snotty Mordred (Jason Done) and all kinds of misery for the kingdom.

How refreshing that at least someone in this loopy throng, none other than Merlin, has old-fashioned values. When the misguided King Uther (Mark Jax) proclaims his passion for a friend's spouse whom he finds beautiful, Merlin quaintly reminds him, "beautiful and somebody else's wife."

Merlin does seem a little square for someone so accustomed to dragons and other exotic oddities. But square in a nice way, for his own romance with the long-suffering Nimue (Isabella Rossellini) has a tenderness and sweet honesty that outlast just about everything else in this production and transcend the grisly happenings that whiz by.

If only the final whizzing would occur somewhat differently. Although you don't expect footnoted realism from a fable, it would be nice if "Merlin" were able to end at least a bit more credibly. The story doesn't seem to know where to end, in fact. The layered conclusion we do get--one that creates an unlikely new romance between two commiserating former villains and grants another romance apparent immortality--is so out of character that it appears to have been gratuitously pressed on with Velcro.

That's legend for you. Illogical, yet irresistible.

* "Merlin" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on NBC (Channel 4). The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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