Even ancient Egypt has bad boys in Spike’s Tut: review

18 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Tut’ Boss on Exploring the Ancient World With Spike, Possible Second Season.

It’s no way to run an empire — with your father dead by a traitor’s poison and you, at the mere age of 10, thrust on the throne. Cutting through the clutter of original programming is a daunting task for any cable network, but particularly for one that isn’t known for its scripted shows.Surprisingly enough, for the first two hours of Spike’s Tut (Sunday, 9 ET/PT, ** stars out of four), a six-hour sand-and-sandal melodrama, our almost total lack of knowledge about the short-lived 18th dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun works in its favor.Tutankhamen, according to the best guesses of archaeologists, historians and forensic scientists, was a sickly, inbred monarch with a club foot who died of natural causes as a teenager and was physically incapable of standing up straight, let alone going into battle.

No one would be more surprised than the late Pharaoh Tutankhamun, aka King Tut, to see himself reincarnated some three millennia later as an action hero. But that’s the fateful hand dealt to King Tutankhamun (Avan Jogia), the famed pharaoh at the heart of the Spike network’s three-night yawn of a miniseries.

Like many other cable networks, Spike TV is looking to a high-end miniseries — Ben Kingsley starrer Tut — to put the Viacom-owned cable network back on the map as a player in the scripted arena. Since about all most people know about King Tutankhamun is that he had some spectacular belongings and afterlife accessories, and that he inspired Steve Martin’s novelty hit, the writers of “Tut” could have could have gone any number of ways. We know little about Tut’s life beyond the famous items from his tomb — one of which, that glittering gold mask, shows up in the second of Tut’s three parts, just to remind us who we’re talking about.

Or, perhaps more accurately, as the star of a six-hour miniseries that sometimes can’t decide whether it’s a chariot epic, reimagined history or soap opera, all the while sprinkling some “Game of Thrones” around the edges. The six-hour event series is Spike’s first scripted show in eight years and is based on the life of the young Tutankhamun The lavish production is really about the complex relationships that defined the life of the troubled Pharaoh, executive producer and director David Von Ancken told The Hollywood Reporter. “I treated everything else as secondary to what was going on in Tut’s heart and the mind of Ay (Kingsley), the puppet master,” Ancken said. “How does he look at himself in the mirror while he’s screwing over the young man he’s effectively raised?” Here, Ancken talks with THR about the challenges of re-creating the ancient world and the harsh life of one of Egypt’s best-known Pharaohs. Free of an historical record they might otherwise be accused of trashing, writers Michael Vickerman, Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige are free to invent as they choose. The discovery of Tut’s tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter and financier George Herbert in 1922 led to a widely renewed interest in ancient Egypt, something this cheap looking, Morocco-shot production could only dream of attaining.

Previously known for programming targeting young men, Spike is following in the footsteps of the History channel (“Hatfields & McCoys”) and others in branching out to produce “event” series, aimed at women as well as men. Now, at 19, he must shape the future of mighty Egypt while navigating palace treachery, lawless Matanni invaders and a wife, Ankhe (Sibylla Deen), who is in love with his closest friend Ka (Peter Gadiot).

In the main though, compared with GoT, “Vikings” and some other offerings with an ancient-times theme, the chief distinctive claim for “Tut” is that it has by far the wildest hats. In one of the many ways the show recasts history to create better television, Jogia’s Tut has grown into a daring, swashbuckling warrior who secretly mingles with his people to learn about their real lives. The handsome Avan Jogia stars as Tutankhamun, who came to the throne when he was about nine and was married off to a half-sibling (played by Sibylla Deen), thus giving the phrase sister-wife a prequel creepy meaning Although ancient forensics is a field full of controversy, there are indications that due to rampant inbreeding many Egyptian royals were practically clones.

Tut is still good for a campy laugh or two, mainly due to the paycheck cashing non-efforts of Ben Kingsley and Alexander Siddig as, respectively, Tut’s treacherous vizier Ay and the deceitful priest Amun. That still gives Tut a leg up on Reign and The Tudors, which substituted dull fiction for far more interesting fact — but that victory is likely to mean more to biographers than viewers. But then they seem to abruptly stop — as do the sex scenes, which feel half done, as if the producers couldn’t decide whether to really do them or not.

Meanwhile, forces conspire against him, including his own top general (Nonso Anozie), the high priest and his adviser, the Grand Vizier (Ben Kingsley, whose painted-on eyebrows look disturbingly like they are about to take flight). On the plus side, give Spike some credit for trying something that seems to be wildly out of its wheelhouse, and for adding some fine actors to the effort — even if those actors aren’t always particularly well-served.

A flaccid script leaves both men without much to work with, however, and the rings of black kohl around their eyes make them look like silent-movie stars in a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Best of all, perhaps, is the tendency of the dialogue (the writers are Bradley Bredeweg, Peter Paige and Michael Vickerman) to sound like foreplay regardless of its real purpose. “You cover your flank well, my lord.” “Will you ride with me, Lagus?” “You have healed more than just my wounds.” “I’m not just your queen. With the exception of a lovely maiden he meets, played by Kylie Bunbury, and a valiant soldier, played by Iddo Goldberg, almost everyone close to Tut is scheming against him as he decides how to defend his kingdom against invaders and tries to produce an heir. No one expects historical accuracy here; it’s no worse than watching rock music channel MTV do a historical drama. (For the record, it’s called Reign, about Mary Queen of Scots). Best known for his work in the pre-teen series Twisted and Victorious, Jogia gives every indication here of being ready to handle bigger, better roles.

The soundtrack is a timpanist’s dream, some bellies are slit open, and there are lots of dancing girls plus at least one otherwise pointless shot of the large, gleaming backside of woman emerging from her bath. The end of the song? “Born in Arizona, got a condo made of stone-a, King Tut.” Anyhoo, Spike is delivering a miniseries about Tut and his rise to power.

Jogia wears the same constipated, model-on-a-catwalk stare whether he’s dealing with treason in his own home — often in the form of his jealous sister Ankhe (Sibylla Dean, doing some sub-Joan Collins thesping) — or preparing to do battle with the massing armies of the neighboring Mittani tribe. Avan Jogia, from Nickelodeon’s “Victorious,” is the boy-king, and Ben Kingsley (left, with Jogia), wearing fabulously thick eyebrow paint, serves Tut as the “prime minister” of the Egyptian Empire.

Produced by Montreal’s Muse Entertainment, which gave us The Pillars of the Earth and The Kennedys, it looks set to deliver on the mandate to widen the audience. These people were as much wanting to get people to watch the show as to announce that Spike has been redesigned into a general entertainment network where you can turn to programming as far afield as a big sword and sandals epic. Despite the advantage of a setting and story largely untouched by television, the show falls back on stock situations and characters of court intrigue — the embattled monarch, the duplicitous adviser, the loyal bodyguard, the murderous queen — you might find in England, Italy, China or Westeros. Can you spare me some meat?”—to the accidentally amusing: “I will not wait for the next life to be with you.” But now and again something will hit the spot for a Spike-watching man, as when Tut is offered a lowly drink instead of his usual wine and replies with wisdom that spans the ages: “Good beer is beneath no one.” An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the character dragged by a chariot in the review of the TV series “Tut.” It is a woman, not a child.

When I came on board, I suggested to writer Michael Vickerman that we cut 65 pages out of the script because otherwise we would have an eight- or 10-hour series on our hands. Married life with his sister (Sibylla Deen) has its problems, such as their not producing an heir, and the fact that she has feelings for Tut’s best friend. As a ruler, he’s battling a plague and the evil Mitanni Empire — though luckily for the Egyptians, Tut has an almost magical ability to slip in and out of palaces unseen. Nonso Anozie is commanding as Tut’s allegiance-shifting military commander and Kylie Bunbury is very alluring as the peasant woman who wins the young king’s heart (and ill-fatedly carries his child). We know she does because, in an example of the flat, exposition-overload dialogue, Ankhe tells her secret love, “I’m the Pharoah’s wife, he is your best friend, and he is our king.” Tut decides he needs to step up his leadership game, and throws himself into battle against Egypt’s enemy, the Mitanni.

This is the first step to his asserting himself as an enlightened warrior-king and also the device by which he encounters Suhad (Kylie Bunbury), the gorgeous farmer’s daughter (not in the historical record) who, through several astounding coincidences, becomes his consort. But the farther it moves, the more it gets entangled in that demeaning queen-vs.-queen subplot, to the point where Tut vanishes from his own movie as thoroughly as he’s vanished from history. Some of this is filmed on Moroccan locations and some on sets — vast expanses of sheetrock and computer animation — that resemble the kind of big, new, mostly empty resorts found in the lesser tropical tourist destinations.

The sometimes amateurish fighting scenes can never hope to approach the grandeur of Westeros, but remember, this is from the station that gave you Wildest Police Videos. Von Ancken stages the action scenes clumsily and cursorily but, perhaps reflecting Spike’s traditionally male demographic, pays close attention to Ms. But, despite some handsome visuals, colorful costumes and more eyeliner than in an entire season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Tut” is as dry as the desert air. The cast members seem infected by the overall banality, opting for grim earnestness as they mouth lines like “We all walk the shadow between light and dark,” “I will be forgotten in sand and time” and this wonderfully mixed metaphor, in reference to an epidemic: “This sickness grows like a dam within those walls. As Tut, Jogia seems more like a shallow, brooding young hunk from a CW series than the tragically short-lived ruler of the most powerful empire on earth.

Deen (“Tyrant”) and Bunbury (“Twisted”) suggest there’s more to Ankhe and Suhad than just pretty faces, but the hokey script keeps them one-dimensional. Bunbury appeared together on the ABC Family series “Twisted,” and their performances here aren’t much different than they were as suburban American teenagers.

He mostly underplays the vizier, however, keeping his dignity intact (despite some embarrassing eye makeup) but not doing anything to raise the show’s pulse. Von Ancken has Tut take a long look at his own burial mask, familiar to us from the cover of the catalog for “Treasures of Tutankhamun.” If he could have looked ahead three millenniums and seen “Tut,” he might have wished his tomb had stayed undiscovered a little longer.

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