Following Doctor Who’s long-awaited return on November 23, BBC America premiered the first episode of another British import, Atlantis. Atlantis follows Jason (Jack Donnelly), a 21st century man who, in seeking his lost father, is brought to ancient Atlantis. There, he quickly finds himself in the odd company of the geeky mathematician Pythagoras (Robert Emms) and the dissolute “hero” Hercules (Mark Addy). An oracle of Poseidon (Juliet Stevenson) reveals that Jason originally hails from Atlantis and that he has some part to play in restoring its fortunes.
Depending on your expectations, Atlantis could be viewed as an entertainingly ephemeral romp or a mild disappointment; I tend toward the latter. The series explores some well-worn but worthwhile territory in introducing its protagonist’s grand destiny—in principle, I can appreciate narratives that insist on human significance, even ones where the locus of providence is shifted from the true God to archaic deities. Unfortunately, Atlantis’ flaws (at least those I perceive in its pilot, “The Earth Bull”) don’t inspire confidence that it will bring anything new, profound, or gripping to the portrayal of its key themes.
Initially, one might expect Atlantis to be the perfect medium for raising thoughtful questions of human destiny. After all, ancient Greece was home to some of history’s profoundest writers and philosophers (including the historical Pythagoras) and its myths are deep archetypal substrata for our own culture. Additionally, the series boasts impressive sets and competent visual effects, and stars some great actors (Addy and Stevenson, in addition to Alexander Siddig). All the pieces would seem to be in place for an enjoyable but also insightful hour of television.
Atlantis might be many things, but insightful it is not. The television format is well-suited to in-depth treatments of human significance precisely because of its broad scope—it can avoid easy answers by leaving its characters and viewers suspended in the kind of philosophical tension that we all experience at times in our lives. In the hands of skillful and patient writers, episodes, arcs, and even whole seasons can suggest the opposite of the show’s broader themes. As a result, an assertion of guiding providence that emerges after dozens of ambiguous or suspenseful episodes can be a moving, hard-won triumph. But if its pilot is any indication, Atlantis lacks such perseverance. Viewers have barely met Jason before he is plunged to the bottom of the sea and thrust into the remote past. The oracle, while necessarily cryptic, gives him plenty of backstory before the first half-hour is complete. “The Earth Bull” certainly doesn’t drag, but the cavalcade of action sequences quickly wears thin.
Atlantis isn’t slow-paced, nor is it grim. Its tone is decidedly lighthearted, even comic at times. The chase and battle scenes are punctuated by slapstick and the writers keep the puns and one-liners coming. But with the gorgeous locations, sets, and costumes, and with material so rich as Greek mythology, it’s hard not to find this flippancy grating, especially since the (intentional) humor is neither very original nor very funny. Contrast this with another Mark Addy vehicle: Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale.
Like Atlantis, A Knight’s Tale takes a serious era rich with historical and legendary resonance and subjects it to irreverent humor. Yet A Knight’s Tale, for all its joyously blatant anachronisms, always remains firmly grounded in its setting. Helgeland skillfully displays a genuine understanding of his sources, so that a coherence underlies the humor (which is often strikingly creative). Atlantis lacks any such coherence; it’s a grab-bag of unrelated legends and stories thrown together, as though someone copied and pasted random lines from a bad SparkNotes version of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Why combine a mythologized Pythagoras with a demythologized Hercules in a city created by Plato so that Jason can fight the Minotaur? Any one of these stories by itself could easily provide the basis for a solid narrative.
So when Stevenson’s oracle mystically declares Jason’s grand destiny, I cannot help but feel underwhelmed. The show’s jokes are unfunny while its logical absurdities are almost hilarious, all of which makes it difficult to take anything about it seriously. After enduring “The Earth Bull,” I was left with the sinking feeling that Atlantis was a lost cause.