The Buzz: ‘Knightfall’ Is a Medieval Epic That Falls Flat
Fighting for a piece of the medieval/period drama pie may seem like a fool’s errand, especially since Game of Thrones is still on the air, and set to dominate the television stratosphere for at least two more seasons. Still, this knowledge hasn’t stopped other networks from giving it their best shot. Rome was cancelled after two seasons due to waning viewership. Spartacus gained traction through its muscles and sex scenes, but perished after three seasons. The Bastard Executioner came and went within the span of only one season. Now comes Knightfall, a History Channel original that hopes to follow in the footsteps of Thrones with a collection of riveting characters and twists.
Except it doesn't. With the exception of its title, an admittedly clever pun, Knightfall is as telegraphed and stuffy as period dramas come, with an over reliance on mindless action, generic set design, and morose brooding that plays as a substitute for genuine emotion. I say this, of course, having only seen the first two episodes (the series premiered on December 6th), but if they are any indication of the quality level we are to get further down the line, I can’t say I’m eager to continue tuning in.
The series is set in 1306, as the Knights Templar are winding down their run as one of the most powerful organizations in the Christian world. With their bases overtaken and morale at an all-time low, the Templar are thrust into a desperate fight for the Holy Land when it is rumored that the Holy Grail may still be hidden somewhere in the area. There’s an endless stream of heroes and villains that filter through, but the closest thing to a lead is Landry (Tom Cullen), a knight whose headstrong nature leads to friction with other members of the Templar.
Juicy though it may seem for the Holy Grail to be the show’s driving motivation, Knightfall seems unsure of how it wants to tackle the Grail’s hallowed mystique. Depending on who is discussing it, the Grail is either a magical relic, a means of leveraging religious power, or a metaphor for the way mankind pursues material objects at the expense of genocide and the destruction of entire cultures. As individual angles, they are inspired, but lumped together, they illustrate a lack of clarity, both in pacing and in the overall tone of the series. Is there a fantasy element at work here? Or merely a dramatic one, with allusions to religious iconography? That I don’t know the answer isn't a good sign, though it’s even worse that the show seems unsure itself.
While there are plenty of conversations about the Grail, and discussions about defending the honor of the Holy Land and the Catholic faith, one shouldn’t come into Knightfall looking for historical accuracy either. The scant bits of context regarding the Templar and their tumultuous ruling-- the most compelling aspects of the series-- are barely made a point of, as if showrunners Don Handfield and Richard Raynor were unsure of what was fact and what was fiction, and just decided to scrap any scenes that directly alluded to history books. This is particularly frustrating when revisions are made to make the Templar appear more noble than they were in real life, like their treatment of the “Saracens” or their reaction to the treatment of Jewish citizens living in France. It's fine that Knightfall doesn’t wish to rock the boat or take politically-charged stances, but then they should have just axed these scenes outright, as they take away from the authenticity of the time period.
This recurring lack of commitment to a particular tone hurts even the show’s few bright spots, like Cullen’s surprisingly charismatic turn as Landry, or Julian Ovenden’s supremely sleazy portrayal of Philip IV’s counselor William De Nogaret. They lend heft to their respective scenes through sheer presence, but are stifled when forced to recite dialogue that’s often clunky and subplots that inexplicably favor less interesting matters, be they steamy affairs (apparently a prerequisite of the period drama) or schemes that go nowhere.
It's a shame really, that Knightfall fails so spectacularly when it could have just as easily capitalized on a rarely-explored subject matter. Barring Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic (and epically underrated) Kingdom of Heaven, the Templar have largely gone undiscussed in popular culture, and a tight, calculated ten episodes could have gone a long way to change that. As it stands, the History Channel has churned out the least compelling and most tedious post-Thrones release to date. Not even a cameo from Jeremy Renner (the show’s executive producer) can salvage this lame crusade.
New episodes of Knightfall air on Wednesdays at 10:00pm ET on the History Channel.