The BBC Goes WB With Robin Hood, Hex

I have very fond memories of the 1980s British series Robin of Sherwood, but I was determined not to let that interfere with my enjoyment of this new Robin Hood. And that didn't happen at all: it turns out that this new series, with its unwillingness to commit to either solemnity or silliness, and its mostly inexperienced actors struggling with bad writing, is more than enough on its own to interfere with the enjoyment of it. Thanks to the wonder of DVD (the set releases June 5), I've now seen way more than that one episode, and my initial reaction has only been confirmed and strengthened.

There's very little fresh or exciting about the familiar story of 12th-century nobleman Robin of Locksley who battles the oppression of the villainous sheriff in his home shire of Nottingham, England. Oh, desperate, obvious attempts are made to inject some sparkle via the pretty, young cast, but Jonas Armstrong, as Robin, and Lucy Griffiths, as Marian, are better up to the task of looking good than at engendering much sympathy or even simply interest in their characters. Not much help is offered by the tedious scripts, which vacillate from trying to invoke contemporary concerns -- the cartoonishly evil sheriff (Keith Allen) tells the fine folk of Nottingham that he is waging a "war on terror" against Robin -- to chucking in anachronistic "jokes" and Matrix-style martial arts. Better if the series had wholeheartedly embraced the full-on goofiness of a Xena than this strained mishmash. The only truly intriguing character is the sheriff's lieutenant, Guy of Gisborne, who commits some truly heinous crimes yet actively desires redemption for them; Richard Armitage makes him a truly conflicted and thoroughly fascinating bad guy. But then, the bad guys always do have all the best lines, don't they?

I figured I'd be getting more of the same kind of adolescent nonsense from Hex. I mean, look: It's a bunch of impossibly gorgeous 20something "teenagers" hanging out at a British boarding school and getting into trouble and into bed with one another. Oh, and there's magic thrown in. But I'm delighted to be wrong: this is Carrie, with all of Stephen King's dark appreciation for the secret powers of women, meeting Harry Potter, with all of J.K. Rowling's subversive grasp on the dangers of adolescence not taken out.

Cassie (Christina Cole) is a shy but talented student at Medenham, the posh boarding school that used to be (centuries earlier) the manor of a slaveholding lord and his witchy wife who was into voodoo. When Cassie finds some of her ancient doodads, she awakens her own magical powers just as -- metaphor alert -- her own sexuality is blossoming. Her "dyke in shining armor" roommate, Thelma (Jemima Rooper), would like to help Cassie with that, but alas, Cassie swings the other way... like toward the demon Azazeal (Michael Fassbender), who shows up and makes her life, ahem, a living hell.

Where events develop from that I'll let you discover -- there's 13 episodes over three discs -- and I can't recommend enough that you do. As delicately realized as it is terrifying, Hex is a rich, subtle, enchanted tapestry. Warning: do NOT read the episode summaries in the DVD package, also out June 5, if you don't want the story spoiled for you.

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MaryAnn Johanson (email me)

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