“Troy: Fall of a City” is a Netflix and BBC co-production which depicts the events of the Trojan War. The series has high production value, good talent in front the camera and a storyline which has survived for thousands of years. In theory, it should have everything going for it. And yet somehow, it fails to be anything more than a disappointing rendition of the Classical epic which is serviceable at best.
On the one hand, this is the first TV version of the chronicles of the Trojan War to depict some of the darkest or most controversial parts of the tale, ranging from parents sacrificing their children to the bisexuality and homoromanticism of the famous warrior Achilles. Some elements of the show which I believed to be modern additions turned out to be part of the ancient plot.
Many of the fight scenes, particularly the famous duel between Achilles and Hector, are shot and produced with excellent attention to detail. I found myself on the edge of my seat during such scenes, despite knowing the outcome. However, such high points are frustratingly far between.
Before the show’s actual problems are tackled, the giant wooden horse in the room needs to be addressed: the colorblind casting. Characters on both sides are portrayed by actors of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds. An example of this is the choice to have the Greek Achilles played by very dark-skinned actor David Gyasi. Mr. Gyasi’s performance however is so outstanding that any concerns stemming from historical accuracy are quickly forgotten. In addition, as the Trojan War is as much legend as it is history, one could argue that actors of any and all backgrounds can portray the characters, much in the same way diverse casts can step into the roles of a work of Shakespeare.
So why then does the show fail so hard in the end? It all comes down to two things: pacing, and not taking the mythical elements of the epic far enough. To the second point, gods, heroes and prophecy feature heavily in the chronicles of the Trojan War. While the show does include some of these moments, it neglects to include others which are key to the dramatic tension of the tale. Achilles is warned by prophecy that should he kill Hector, he will guarantee his own death. This makes the duel between the two all the more dramatic in the Iliad, and its failure to be included in the screenplay strips some of this key tension away.
Princess Cassandra of Troy is blessed with the power of prophecy, but is cursed with never being believed. The show portrays this as people dismissing her selectively, not absolutely, so it comes off more as ignorance or stupidity instead of tragic dramatic irony. Elsewhere and throughout the war, gods dip in and out of interfering with the affairs of mortals in a complex series of divine political and strategic machinations. The show hurts itself by failing to include all these elements in favor of a select few. With Greek mythology, it is often best to take an all or nothing approach when including the mystical and divine elements of a story.
However, all this could have been forgiving if not for the show’s disastrous pacing. Much like a stressful week of school, each episode drags on and on, but the series flies by. Character motivations and attitudes seem to change on a dime, often with inadequate justification. B plots either do little to serve the wider plot, or are inserted at the strangest of moments. But above all, the sheer number of characters makes it that not enough time is given to develop or even identify many of them. In the finale, as characters begin to drop like flies, a feeling of a halfhearted “oh no, not … that one” was all I felt for many of the characters. Even the ones I could put a name to were so poorly developed that I found it hard to care about them.
The whole season feels more like a rushed attempt to set up a second season or spin off series in the form of the Aeneid and the Odyssey legends, without properly developing the titular characters of the next season. For example, Odysseus is portrayed by “Game of Thrones” actor Joseph Mawle. While he does a good job in individual scenes of showing the conflict within the character, he goes from being a reluctant warrior in one scene to a Machiavellian tactician in the next, to a regretful warrior in the next.
Not enough time is used to show his motivations and his shifting wants and needs. There are too many characters, and a dearth of time, to make them compelling. In a story built on its litany of compelling characters that survived the millennia, this is a death blow from which the show cannot recover.
I give “Troy: Fall of a City” props for having high aspirations, but failing by rushing through them rather than taking the time this epic needed and deserved.