Review: AMC’s pulpy stew ‘Into the Badlands’ leaves no genre behind
With the end of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” AMC lost its two big, more or less real-world Quality Dramas. Moving forward, the network seems to be following “The Walking Dead” deeper into genre fiction.
And to hedge that bet, it’s mounted a show that encompasses all of them at once.
Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (“Smallville,” “Shanghai Noon”), “Into the Badlands” is set in a relatively tidy yet inevitably dystopian future that looks a lot like “the past” — and like Louisiana, where it was shot. Premiering Sunday, the series is a pulpy stew: a post-apocalyptic martial-arts samurai steampunk quasi-medieval neo-antebellum feudal Southern, western film noir, with a supernaturally gifted messianic major character, a central slavery metaphor and a structural resemblance to a Mafia epic.
Hong Kong-based Chinese American actor Daniel Wu plays the strangely named Sunny, the all but invincible captain of the ninja army that serves Quinn (Marton Csokas), one of seven “barons” who have divided the local landscape among them. An unpleasant person with a soft Southern accent, Quinn runs the opium trade, not illegally, and is about to take a second wife (Sarah Bolger); the first one (Orla Bradley) is still around, looking after the interests of their sorry son (Oliver Stark). But Quinn likes Sunny best. You know that story.
Stumbling into this scenario, from somewhere else, comes M.K. (Aramis Knight), a teenager rescued by Sunny in a flurry of neck-twisting, sword-slashing and stick-impaling from thugs in the pay of a rival baron called the Widow (Emily Beecham). The Widow, who controls the oil as Quinn does the drugs, has a daughter, Matilda (Alexia Ioannides), who seems set to play the ingenue to M.K.'s juvenile; she is sweet for a trained killer, and appealingly conflicted.
It seems strange that our posterity has created a world whose stylistic references come almost exclusively from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps there are places beyond the Badlands where it’s all, like, 1980, or even 2080. And, indeed, there are hints of a sort of Emerald City, out past the poppy fields — that’s right — and flying monkeys and whatever, to which our hero or heroes, whoever they turn out to be, will seemingly try to make their way.
Everyone onscreen does a good job. That some of the readings are a little stiff is not inimical to this sort of drama. Still, the real stars here are fight director Stephen Fung, director of photography Shane Hurlbut and production designer Carey Meyer, who keep the show looking good, in a video game way.
The fights, which are bloody, fast and squelchy, quickly become purely choreographic; they’re like puzzles to solve in order for the narrative to proceed and, perhaps not oddly, the only time the show feels fun. The enemy being essentially faceless and undifferentiated by character, their dispatching has no emotional downside. It’s rather like watching a chorus of dancing pirates being knocked off in a production of “Peter Pan.”
The show is not much for humor; you could count the number of jokes in an episode on the finger you would use to count the number of jokes in an episode. This will suit viewers who like their maiming and killing straight, who prefer their post-apocalypse untainted by irony.
But whatever our future holds, surely it will be worth at least a little mocking.
‘Into the Badlands’
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
Get the Envelope newsletter for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes stories from the Envelope podcast and columnist Glenn Whipp’s must-read analysis.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.