As Liz Lemon would say, What the what? “Britannia” is Amazon’s answer to HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and it is a baffling, hysterical, campy, and bizarre answer at that. When I wasn’t laughing at this historical fantasy epic set in AD 43, during the Roman conquest of Britain, I was admiring its chutzpah and its bluster.
Seriously, this series — whose creators include Jez Butterworth, a co-screenwriter of the Whitey Bulger drama “Black Mass” — is a fabulous, stupid mess. Perhaps it’s the druids, with their giant Margaret Keane eyes, who live in the forest and always seem to be high, or perhaps it’s the rock ’n’ roll Britons and their hallucinogenic tribal rituals, which trigger all kinds of cheesy visual effects. Or maybe it’s just the Ken Russell-like flamboyance of the whole enchilada, not least of all the perverse leading performance by David Morrissey, who, as invading General Aulus Plautius, proclaims, “I AM ROME, AND WHERE I WALK IS ROME.” But ultimately, from Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in the title sequence to Zoe Wanamaker’s cursing tribal queen, “Britannia” rules the weirds.
The story isn’t nearly as complicated as “Game of Thrones,” although the makers of “Britannia” seem to be trying to make it seem convoluted. The basic idea is that, 90 years after Caesar tried to take over Britain and ran home scared, Plautius returns with 20,000 soldiers to conquer the druids and the warring Celts. They’re not quite prepared for the chaos and magic they’ll find. But “Britannia” introduces us to too many characters and tribes too quickly, so that confusion rains down — along with all the blood and guts. The names get lost in the shuffle. A number of folks die in the first two episodes, too, which adds to the problem, since we can’t be sure which of these twisted figures is in fact a central character.
The script is built on tropes borrowed — perhaps deliberately, it’s hard to tell — from “Game of Thrones.” There is a Melisandre-like lady, always lurking about with her red hair and her bow and arrow. Played by Kelly Reilly, Kerra, the daughter of King Pellanor (Ian McDiarmid), is a fierce warrior, although at moments I found myself giggling about her sitcom-like coiffure. There’s a young Brit named Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), who survives a massacre and winds up traveling the landscape with an increasingly gentle giant known as The Outcast (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) — all with obvious shades of Arya Stark and The Hound. There are touches of “Vikings” and “Rome” here and there, too, as the pagan rites and sexual twists pile up, and the prosthetics-laden super-evil druid played by Mackenzie Crook made me think of Gollum.
At one point, Cait delivers the kind of contemporary line that you stumble over in this ancient tale repeatedly, along with the F word: “You know, for someone so wise, you really stink.” The modernisms are amusing, and they invite us to take “Britannia” as a sendup — but then the series doesn’t commit to that approach, as it lapses back into straight-up battle drama. It’s trashy, but, perhaps, not trashy enough.
Starring: David Morrissey, Kelly Reilly, Zoe Wanamaker, Ian McDiarmid, Zaqi Ismail, Joe Armstrong, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Mackenzie Crook, Eleanor Worthington-Cox. On Amazon. Season one streams Friday.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.