Review | Television

Review: 'Merlin' is back with a rousing episode on Syfy for series' final season

As Dear Abby might say: Happy new year, dear readers!

And I can think of few ways to better start off another year of being a geek than watching the return of “Merlin” on Syfy at 10 p.m. Friday.

Die-hard fans have probably already used the Internet to watch the fifth series (aka season, for us Yanks), which just wrapped up its season and series finale in Britain. But I decided to go ahead and wait for the Syfy airings, even though they give me trouble on my Tivo. (Seriously, Syfy, why do “Merlin” and “Lost Girl” appear as reruns on my Tivo, forcing me to manually set it to record them every week unless I want to include all the reruns in my Season Pass, too? I find it interesting that this only happens with your imported shows.)

Things are off to a dramatic start with the two-parter “Arthur’s Bane.” And while I’ve had my issues with the series almost since it began, I can’t help but be a loyal viewer thanks to the sheer awesomeness of most of the main cast. This year won’t be any different, though I fear one new character may be causing the series to jump the shark, but it’s the last batch of episodes anyway, so it’s forgiven.

I realize this all sounds like a very qualified seal of approval, but I do enjoy the show and haven’t missed an episode since its original run on NBC before moving over to Syfy. Like I said, you can thank the actors and their characters for that. This is definitely one of those shows that deserves an ensemble award.

Katie McGrath is back as the evil Morgana. (Syfy)

Katie McGrath is back as the evil Morgana. (Syfy)

The new series picks up three years after the end of the fourth. Magic is still outlawed, and Merlin (Colin Morgan) is still working his powers behind the scenes to keep Arthur (Bradley James) safe. (Ugh, I really wish he’d “come out” already.) Gwen (Angel Coulby) has settled nicely into her role as queen. Morgana (Katie McGrath) has retreated to the north to lick her wounds and search for the Diamair, “the key to all knowledge,” which will finally allow her to destroy Camelot and make magic reign again. This time she’s teamed up with Liam Cunningham (“Game of Thrones”) as the druid Ruadan, who also wants to see Arthur fall. Even Mordred (Alexander Vlahos) is back. With all the returning knight regulars, the casting budget must be huge.

Sir Gwaine (Eoin Macken) and Sir Percival (Tom Hopper) (and lots of other knights) have disappeared on a scouting mission, so Arthur, Merlin and a bunch more head off to save them. Along the way, Merlin meets a dying druid who fortells Arthur’s death. But Arthur’s bane is not necessarily what you think, as we learn.

It’s a great episode (well, episodes, but you’ll only see one Friday), filled with all the knightly derring-do, humorous banter and moments when you want to throw a rubber brick at the screen we’ve come to expect from the show.

Morgan and James have great chemistry, even if their shtick is getting a bit old. I thought they’d gotten somewhat past the dynamic of jerk boss, incompetent servant at the end of the last series, but they’re back at it. Coulby doesn’t get to do much yet, but she seems a stronger character. And Richard Wilson as Merlin’s mentor, Gaius, is a welcome, more wise presence.

The knights are all fine, and I feel compelled to make a Sir Loin of Beefcake joke since Macken and Hopper spend almost the entire two-parter shirtless.

Best of all, McGrath seems to have taken some acting lessons during her hiatus and is more grounded as Morgana. I almost stopped watching during the fourth series because she was so terrible, but, at least in these two episodes, she reins in the worst of her overacting and does a more realistic job with the parts that need a bit more oomph.

Her icy fortress is either days away or a couple hours away, depending on how quickly the plot needs to get the character there. And there are other minor quibbles with plotting, but nothing that I haven’t grown used to over the years.

I don’t tune into “Merlin” for the intricate plotting. There’s just something about the way this cast gels, and the constant, usually interesting tweaks to Arthurian legend that keep me coming back. I’ll be sorry to see the series go after this year’s 13 episodes.

Come back tomorrow for a “Merlin” giveaway!

Rupert Young, left, and Tom Hopper are Sir Leon and Sir Percival, respectively. (Syfy)

Rupert Young, left, and Tom Hopper are Sir Leon and Sir Percival, respectively. (Syfy)

Eric Henrickson is a Detroit News copy editor who has also been writing about comic books, video games and anime for The News for more than 10 years. His favorite bit of geek cred so far: appearing in an online "Star Trek" fan series.