[This is a review of Tut episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
If you've been flipping channels lately and found yourself wondering if perhaps Brendan Fraser was now a fulltime employee of Spike – considering his 1999 adventure-comedy The Mummy has seemingly been in heavier-than-usual rotation – or why dude-centric programs like Ink Master and Bar Rescue have been imbued with Jack Donaghy-levels of corporate synergy, featuring guest appearances by Avan Jogia, Alexander Siddig, and Iddo Goldberg, well, wonder no further. The answer to these perplexing questions of mid-tier cable network programming lies in the six-hour miniseries event Tut – which from the get-go defines itself less as the ambitious historical drama it is billed as (and the presence of Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley would have you believe) and more of an improbable swashbuckling adventure, tempered with instances of rote political intrigue.
This fictional retelling of boy king Tutankhamun's desire to rise from feckless and sheltered pharaoh to beloved and just ruler of Egypt spends a great deal of time working its way around typical clichés of such stories, beginning with an unnecessary demonstration of the soon-to-be pharaoh's humanity when, as a young boy, he refuses to slay the son of the man who poisoned his father. The story, directed by Seraphim Falls and Hell on Wheels director David Von Ancken, then jumps forward in time, to when a young, restless Tut (Avan Jogia) spends his days training in swordplay with his best friend Ka (Peter Gadiot), and his nights surrounded by his not-so-loyal subjects Vizier Ay (Kingsley) and General Horemheb (Nonso Anonzie), who seek to take the burden of leadership away from the young man, and shape the future of Egypt in the way they see fit.
But for reasons that aren't made entirely clear outside of general curiosity, Tut takes a note from Aladdin's Jasmine and sneaks out of the palace walls to clumsily make his way through the marketplace he's never seen before. Once there, the ineffectual leader demonstrates his chivalry by protecting a woman's honor, before finding himself the victim of the very same woman he was attempting to save. It's there that Tut meets Lagus (Iddo Goldberg), a soldier of questionable ethnicity who, with this beard and leather armor looks like a cross between Elysium's Sharlto Copley and mid-'90s Kevin Sorbo. After the two share yet another chance encounter, when Tut attempts to protect the honor of Suhad (Kylie Bunbury of Under the Dome), Lagus and the incognito king make a nocturnal mission to do away with three enemy invaders camped out on Egypt's border.
It's a friendship born of bloodshed, as Tut proves himself worthy in the eyes of a man who, like most everyone else in Egypt, thinks of the pharaoh as a sickly boy too feeble to rule properly, much less inspire his people. And in the plodding two-hour premiere, the Lagus-Tut companionship becomes the only relationship worth investing in.
Because of the scope of the epic, and its sex-filled political intrigue mixed with sword-swinging battle sequences, Tut seemingly welcomes comparisons to Game of Thrones. And while the former is a fictionalized account of an actual historical figure, it is the latter that comes away feeling like the more genuine experience. Much of that has to do with the casting – both of the major players and those seen milling around in the background. Tut's cast is comprised of young actors with matinee-idol good looks (a case of WB-face by way of Spike, if you will) that makes for a consistently attractive viewing experience, nonetheless hampered by an undeniable superficial quality.
It's an issue that carries over to the major turning point of the premiere, in which Tut choses to stand up to General Horemheb and Ay, by placing himself in harm's way, leading a battle against an invading army. This decision goes against the wishes of his unfaithful sister-wife Ankhe (Sibylla Deen of FX's Tyrant), but works to the advantage of the pharaoh's power-hungry advisers and sister-wife-stealing BFF, when the young ruler appears to fall in battle. Before any political intrigue can come to pass, however, as everyone scrambles in the power vacuum left by the pharaoh's unconfirmed death, Tut struggles to pull of a convincing battle sequence that again proves how varying levels of authenticity can make or break an epic.
When you gander at something like, say, the Unsullied, you see a group of individuals who convincingly look like a well-trained army that might exist in bygone era (fictional or otherwise). And yet, when Tut marches its army into the desert, all you see are a bunch of extras pulling in $150 a day, plus lunch. In the end, there's a veneer of legitimacy that is simply missing. Coupled with an opportune romance between a quickly convalescing Tut and Suhad – the most plot device-y character in all of television – the miniseries' exorbitant level of artificiality makes it difficult to invest in the story, much less any of the characters.
With four hours left to go, Tut may yet rise above its inauspicious beginnings, but in order to do that, it needs to find out what it wants to be: An unthinking adventure story of a boy king's journey into manhood, or an historical epic with legitimate storytelling ambitions.
Tut continues Monday, July 20 @9pm on Spike.
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