Robyn Hood is a little Canadian show that has managed to gain international attention, at least online. A race and gender-swapped retelling of the Robin Hood story, it casts the legendary hero as a poor black rocker who takes up arms against John Prince, an evil land developer intent on tearing down the apartment building that is her home and home to the community she cares about.
That’s the premise, at least. Much of the attention the show has received is not positive. Reviews have been savage, citing everything from unintentional racism to poor storytelling and giving the show a potentially record-setting low on the IMBD. Stirring the pot further, the creator and director, who styles himself “Director X,” engaged in an embarrassing display where he called out his YouTube critics by name and questioned his detractors’ manhoods.
That’s the context, and I am presenting it solely as such. This is not a review (I haven’t actually watched the show, and since it’s not the sort of thing I’m interested in right now, I’m not planning to), and I have no interest in joining the dogpile. I really can’t stand the meanness of spirit in pop culture and its commentary these days (it’s why my own commentary is limited to occasional articles like this one), and I have no intention of contributing to it. Instead, I want to explore the concept — the general storytelling decisions that were made, and how they could have been different.
Here’s the thing: on paper, the basic concept works. It’s easy to see why somebody would greenlight this story, and it doesn’t require woke-ism to get approval for production. It is an underdog story about a scrappy hero fighting forces far greater than she is to save her home. The basic stakes are relatable — anybody could get behind them, regardless of the sex or ethnicity of its protagonists or villains.
And yet, the concept doesn’t work on television — it has endemic problems that probably weren’t clear to anybody involved in the production until it was far too late to change anything.
So, let’s take a look at this concept, the various parts, why they should fit together, why they don’t, and what would make it work.
The character concept of Robyn Hood makes a lot of sense on paper. She’s somebody from what is, in-universe, a marginalized community. She has a stake in the apartment building at Sherwood and Forest — it’s where she grew up, and where her family and friends live. She’s poor and she has nothing (or the show’s version of nothing), and she has to fight antagonists who have everything.
But here we start running into problems, and these are not avoidable — they have to do with the medium in which the story is presented. Many commentators have mentioned how large, well furnished, and clean Robyn’s apartment happens to be for somebody who is supposedly living in poverty. It damages their suspension of disbelief, and makes her look like somebody who isn’t so much poor as entitled and unwilling to work.
But, it could be no other way. The problem comes down to the basic reality of television show production. The apartment is a major setting for the show, and that means that Robyn and her family have to occupy and do things in it. But, when filming, it’s not just them — it’s also the camera crew, and the sound technicians, and the lighting technicians, and all of the various equipment. It’s not just two or three people who have to be able to move around that space…it’s easily over a dozen. The apartment needs to be big so that everybody can fit in and the actors can move around, it needs to be clean so that people aren’t tripping over things as they act, and it needs to be well furnished so that all that space looks lived in. This problem exists for every major set in the show.
The solution I would use is to make Robyn and her cohorts middle class.
This solves a lot of problems. If Robyn is middle class instead of poor, then the spaces she and her family are occupying become believable. This also means that the apartment building she is trying to save ceases to be a major set, and is now free to be filmed as small, cramped, and ramshackle.
On a story level, it also puts her in a position where she is not benefitting from the crimes she commits. This brings her more in line with the original premise of the character, stealing to help others who are less fortunate. This in turn helps defray the problem of accidental racism — as many have pointed out, the show casts all of its main protagonists as black, hip-hopping petty crooks. But, if they’re not stealing for themselves in any way at all, they’re no longer petty crooks. It also gives her higher stakes — she now has much more to lose — and puts her in a position where the story can use her to examine the impact of poverty and systemic discrimination as she discovers what the people in the projects are experiencing alongside the viewer.
The Sheriff is actually fine — I don’t think I’d change a thing about her basic premise.
While the Sheriff of Nottingham is often portrayed to be villainous, this is not actually required for the character to work. In all of the versions of the story, the conflict between him and Robin Hood is driven by the fact that Robin Hood is committing crimes, and the Sheriff’s job is to stop them. So, what I’ve heard about the show fleshing the Sheriff out into a more sympathetic character is fine — it even makes a nice contrast between her and Robyn.
So, nothing wrong with the Sheriff. I’d keep her as-is.
Prince John being cast into the role of the evil land developer on its face makes a lot of sense. Wanting to develop the property Robyn’s home is located on places them in conflict, and drives that conflict forward. Being wealthy not only gives him resources that Robyn lacks, but also frames the conflict between “haves” and “have-nots.” And, the evil land developer is a long-standing trope in fiction, particularly in westerns. This is a character and conflict that the audience would have no trouble understanding.
The problem, I think, actually comes from the urban setting. As a land developer in a major city, John Prince is fairly limited in what he can do. He doesn’t have any power over Robyn’s home or the people living in the building, because he doesn’t own it (and therefore can’t do things like raise the rent beyond what people could pay so that he can evict them). He can’t really apply much pressure to make people leave, because he can’t levy taxes or create oppressive laws. He can’t even be very corrupt, because what he can do is limited to bribing officials and cheaping out on construction materials.
The role also puts him into a position that is unintentionally sympathetic. The building he wants to erect would be (in theory) better than the one that is there. His money is earned through his hard work. He therefore comes across to many as more heroic than Robyn.
The solution I’d use is to make John Prince the mayor. This brings him more in line with the Prince John of the original story, and also places him in a position of power over the residents at Sherwood and Forest. His money can be unearned, either being inherited or gathered by lining his own pockets. He can pass unjust laws, and take actions that can hurt the people Robyn cares about and break apart their families. It allows him to play a proper villain, and be an unsympathetic character.
The problem with this solution is that it actually removes one of the drivers of the conflict — if John Prince is no longer a land developer, why should he care one way or the other about the apartment at Sherwood and Forest? There needs to be something that brings these forces into conflict and keeps them there. And for that, we would need to add one more character to the mix.
Sir Guy of Gisborne
To my knowledge, Sir Guy of Gisborne does not appear in this series. However, if John Prince is made the mayor, Sir Guy would need to step into the role of the evil land developer that John Prince has vacated.
This creates an important dynamic. Sir Guy is the one who wants to evict the residents in the apartment building at Sherwood and Forest, tear it down, and build something new. John Prince is the corrupt mayor in Sir Guy’s pocket who acts on his behalf. And Robyn Hood is the one who discovers this is happening, realizes that so long as John Prince is mayor nothing can be done through the law, and takes up the mantle of an outlaw to fight them.
As I mentioned above, it’s easy to see why this show was greenlit. The premise is good. The conflict is understandable. And the problems — which are endemic to the premise — are also not obvious.
And, I think that this show will not go down in history as having failed because it was “too woke for its own good,” or something like that. I think any failure will come down to endemic problems in the premise being spotted too late to be fixed, if they were spotted at all.