Spike’s ambitious scripted drama Tut explores Egypt in the 14th century B.C., following King Tutankhamun (Avan Jogia) on his rise to power amidst civil unrest. If you made it through that first sentence and somehow remained 100% objective then I, for one, admire your restraint. “Wait, Spike? Isn’t that the network that plays Cops reruns, Deadliest Warrior spin-offs, and 1000 Ways to Die?” Yes, which is why I wasn’t expecting much when I started watching the three-part mini-series. Then I found out that none other than Ben Kingsley would be starring, not just in a brief, paycheck-cashing role, but in an actual integral part. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Visually, Tut is a winner. The unusually high production quality (for a cable TV mini-series, anyway) on display here is a promising start. Lush costumes, vibrant colors, palpable textures, and, of course, dramatic eyeliner make the characters stand out against the arid landscape, from the palace royals, to the urban commoners, to the foreign soldiers marching through the desert sand. Tut could have scrimped on the costumes and grabbed a bunch of old rags off the racks of any number of earlier productions, but these garbs look tailor-made. Honestly, it’s the least you can do for a cast that, in addition to Kingsley, also includes veterans like Nonso Anozie and Alexander Siddig. Unfortunately, the more-than-competent cast can’t overcome a plodding script riddled with rough dialogue.
Though Tut takes place over the course of three nights and six episodes, here’s more or less what you can expect to see in the first night: Tut is introduced, finds the confidence to stand up to his power-hungry advisers, falls while leading his people into battle, and escapes a foreign encampment in order to return home and regain his throne. Somehow all of that takes two hours. Similar series seem to kill off half their cast in that amount of time while juggling a dozen or so storylines. Tut has maybe four, in addition to the main arc, and they all move at a snail’s pace. Watching the actors churn through stilted dialogue that’s stylized in a formal approximation of “ancient” speak certainly does not help move the thing along any.
And yet, there’s something for everyone to enjoy here. It’s not a historically accurate representation of Tut’s life and, as far as I can tell, doesn’t claim to be, so expect more drama than documentary here. In order to keep the throne, Tut has to fend off a usurping General (Anozie), a patient yet manipulative Vizier (Kingsley), and an ambitious High Priest (Siddig). He also must contend with the infertility between himself and his sister/wife/Queen, Ankhe (Sibylla Deen), whose true affection is reserved for Tut’s friend and sparring partner Ka (Peter Gadiot). In addition to these internal threats, there’s also the external worry of the approaching army of the Mitanni. Oh, and a strange illness has been sweeping through the city in the meantime. Lots to resolve but so little interest in picking up the pace.
If it’s a love story you’re after, you can do worse than Tut. Apparently ancient Egyptians were more forgiving of a brother-sister marriage than the fictional Lannisters were, but if Tut and Ankhe’s incestuous relationship doesn’t do it for you, then the tryst between Ankhe and Ka certainly will. There’s a rather vigorous sex scene between the two of them that I’m surprised made it past the censors; that should help viewership ratings some (but who knew ancient Egyptians still had bikini tan lines?). And don’t feel bad for Ol’ King Tut; the boy Pharaoh soon finds solace in the arms (and bed) of a half-Egyptian, half-Mitanni woman, whose mixed parentage is explained away by rape (of course it is, but at least it’s not shown on-screen). The action junkies among you may walk away unimpressed as the fighting is furious but brief, a strange decision for a network fueled by adrenaline.
If you manage to stick around through Tut’s first two hours, then you’ll find that the following two nights most definitely resolve the issues facing the king. You can also expect much more violence, disease, betrayal, fire, manipulation, back-stabbing, sex, and even explosions, yes, explosions! In ancient Egypt! It’s like a few nights of concentrated Game of Thrones that somehow moves slower than an entire season of the HBO show but manages to tie up more loose ends. My advice: stay hydrated.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Watch this recent trailer to get a taste of the show:
Tut premieres on Spike Sunday, July 19th from 9pm to 11pm ET/PT.