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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Robin Hood' hits the bull's-eye

The BBC America series is a throwback worth following to the castle walls.

April 26, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

Maybe it's because "Masterpiece" is going through a "classics" phase that television seems awash in historical dramas so detailed you can hardly bear to watch. Scenes of Early American mastectomies (HBO's "John Adams"), boiling people alive (Showtime's "The Tudors") or the muddy tragedy of the trenches (PBS' "A Room With a View") leave little room for romantic contemplation of the past.

For those feeling a bit overwhelmed, there is a place where history is still allowed to romp, a show that offers the sword fights and drawbridges, the doublets and fitted fluttering gowns, without feeling obligated to regularly clear its throat and remind you of, you know, the bloody flux or the horrifyingly high death rates associated with childbirth.

That place, strangely enough, is BBC America, and the show is "Robin Hood."

Season 2, which premieres tonight, promises to be just as much fun as Season 1. Deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest (OK, it's Hungary, but it looks terribly English), Robin of Locksley (Jonas Armstrong) and his band of merry men are still robbing from the rich and giving to the poor for pretty much the same reasons they've always had.

Good King Richard is off fighting the Crusades while the nefarious Prince John has left the fine folk of Nottingham in the clutches of its Sheriff (Keith Allen) and his ruthless henchman, Sir Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage). Taxes are regularly collected from the dirt-poor peasantry and just as regularly stolen from the collectors, with Robin and the Sheriff coming to deathblows in virtually every episode, if not over the money, then over Maid Marian (here known only as Marian and played by Lucy Griffiths).

It's an oldie but a goodie, made fresh by crispish dialogue and a vaguely modern sensibility -- one of the merry men is a woman (and a Saracen scientist to boot!), Marian is so wildly independent she has her own secret persona called the Nightwatchman, and with a little tweaking, Little John, Allan a Dale and Much could be unlikely roommates on a new network sitcom.

More important, perhaps, is the broody, boyish charm of Armstrong's Robin and that very British, perfectly straight-faced alchemy of passion, camp and wackiness that has endeared "Doctor Who" to so many.

This Sherwood Forest is rigged with enough booby traps and camouflaged caves to please Maxwell Smart -- indeed, I keep waiting for someone to communicate somehow using a leather boot phone. How many shows these days have the courage to dangle their hero over a vat of snakes while a mean blond monologues about how sorry she is to kill him? How many narratives could accommodate turning a proper British castle into a Middle Ages Bellagio, complete with a heist plot that's part "Ocean's Eleven," part "Indiana Jones"?

In the first episode of the new season, we meet the Sheriff's long-legged and dominatrix-influenced sister (she's the dame with the snakes), who has bodyguards who stole their look from the Third Reich by way of Tom of Finland. Clearly, they are up to no good.

In the second, Robin and his men, tired of footwork, go for the big score -- the castle's new Strong Room, which the Sheriff plans to fill with gold won off easy mark Prince Frederick of Hanhelm, brought to Sherwood for a little high-stakes craps game. In both there is swordplay and arrow shooting aplenty, along with much cleavage, treachery and dark plans completely explained by the baddies while the good guys hide behind a convenient pillar. It's a bit like the old "Batman" series, only with tunics and cloaks instead of tights and capes, and better acting. As an added bonus it is a show you can watch with the whole family, though there are some references to things like cutting off a thief's hand that might upset the younger ones.

But then there's no escaping the brutality of the time entirely, and I believe it is historically accurate.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Robin Hood'

Where: BBC America

When: 9 p.m. ET/PT Saturday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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