Myths are malleable, and BBC America’s “Atlantis” twists ancient ones into new shapes.
The lush 13-episode series launches Saturday, Nov. 23. Set on the lost island of Atlantis, it has a filmic look and tremendous fun with Greek myths.
In this, Hercules is an overweight blowhard played by Mark Addy (“Game of Thrones”). Medusa (Jemima Rooper, “Hex”), the hideous Gorgon who had snakes for hair, is now a sweet young woman. And Jason (Jack Donnelly, “Dancing on the Edge”) is a hot traveler from the present.
“What struck me most is why hasn’t anyone used this material before,” Rooper tells Zap2it. “They are reinventing the stories as they want.”
Fittingly, the series opens at sea, with Jason on a quest to find his long-lost father, whose submarine disappeared. Jason’s small sub spins out of control and crashes, and he washes up, naked, on a foreign shore.
That naked bit and the demigods’ typically randy behavior are hinted at but never shown. This is very much a Saturday night family show from the creators of “Merlin.”
Jason finds himself in the agora, the bustling open market, where he encounters a vicious two-headed lizard and triggers a manhunt for him. The sets are fabulous and the sun-dappled, sandblasted colors are what one imagines the mythical Atlantis looked like. The series was shot in Morocco and Wales.
“Greek mythology has always fascinated us,” co-creator Johnny Capps says. “We are drawing from them. It is under the ocean. We wanted to create an interesting group of heroes.”
Jason, Capps explains, is part Perseus, a bit Theseus and part Jason of “Jason and the Argonauts.”
In the pilot and second episodes, Jason is brave, righteous and very confused. Who could blame him?
One moment he’s in modern times, and a little while later he’s dodging lions on the prowl.
The oracle (Juliet Stevenson), of course, knows Jason’s fate and explains that his father “took him to the other world when he was a baby. You must tell no one you have traveled through. Jason, only you can bring an end to the people’s fear and suffering.”
In the pilot, he makes two important friends, Pythagoras and Hercules.
They make for an excellent trio – brains, brawn and bravery. Plus Jason discovers he has many hidden powers and no clue why. He can flip backward and manages to slip through dangers unscathed.
The pilot has the citizens of Atlantis forced to pick stones to see which seven will be sacrificed to the minotaur. Selecting a white stone grants a one-year lease on life, picking a black stone means death. Pythagoras picks a black stone, but Hercules swaps stones with him.
Of course, the three of them wind up in the spooky cave where the dreaded minotaur lives. The monster is suitably scary without being nightmare-inducing.
When Jason slays the minotaur, Hercules takes credit.
“Hercules was the first public relations man in history,” says co-creator Howard Overman.
When the audience meets Hercules, he’s striding about, chest puffed out, and says, “I am not fat. I am heavily built, powerful. I have big bones.”
“In your stomach?” Pythagoras asks.
During an interview in Beverly Hills last summer, Addy recalls telling his family that he was playing the muscleman of mythology. “My two younger ones asked, ‘You’re playing Hercules?’ He was very strong. Zeus was his dad. That’s what makes him strong – not that he goes to the gym every day.”
Hercules has a lot of fun. He drinks too much, gambles and is said to be a womanizer, though in the first two episodes he flirts more than he connects.
“If he were to get into a fight with a couple of guys, there would be 30 when he was finished,” Addy says of his Hercules.
He’s also the comic relief of the series, used in the right doses, when the action gets tense.
In the second episode, Hercules wakes up with a goat licking him. His pals ask what’s on his cheek.
“Dried goat saliva,” he says.
“Oh, you will kiss anything once you’ve had a few drinks,” Jason says.
Each week tackles a new myth, and the three friends use their intelligence, strength and superherolike powers to do good, which can, when necessary, mean killing.
Also in the second episode, Jason rescues Demeter and slays the priestess of the Maenads; Medusa is introduced as well.
“We never know where she has come from,” Rooper says. “She is new to Atlantis and ends up running with them.”
Given how many crazy and dangerous characters populated the ancient world, she was pretty lucky to join them. Besides, as long as she casts her lot with Jason, Medusa has better odds of survival. The Oracle says Jason has a destiny to fulfill.
“You are not like other men. You will realize that soon enough,” the Oracle tells Jason.
These epic myths can inspire stuffiness, but “Atlantis” keeps it light.
“It’s great fun,” Capp says. “It’s cheeky. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
“They have created a world that is quite easy to inhabit,” Addy says. “I am just fascinated by the lengths they have gone to make this world live.”
“I hope that audiences will find it and maybe be inspired to read more Greek mythology,” Addy says, “even if just to say, ‘Well, they got that all wrong.’ The creators are aware they are playing with this stuff. If it fits into the story, we are doing it.”