Hit or Sh**: AMC’s INTO THE BADLANDS
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
AMC is back at it with another blood-soaked, post-apocalyptic slasher series in the form of INTO THE BADLANDS. Produced, choreographed, and led by Daniel Wu, it’s the first showrunner-in-the-spotlight gig I’ve watched in a long while that wasn’t character comedy. The pilot for INTO THE BADLANDS feels like Quentin Tarantino and George R.R. Martin decided to team up for an episode of THE WALKING DEAD. Whether that’s a good thing or not is entirely up to you.
INTO THE BADLANDS takes place in the far future, where civilization has been destroyed by war and rebuilt into a feudal society led by despotic Barons. The Barons retain their power by destroying all guns and enforce their will through Clippers, mean dudes who know kung fu. Sunny (Wu) is the best of the Clippers, and the episode opens with the motorcycle-riding thug snapping the necks of a few dozen bandits who stole from his Baron, Quinn. He rescues a serf from them, a boy named MK, and gives him to Quinn to serve beneath him. When Sunny discovers that he and MK share the same sigil of the fabled city of Azra, a plot to escape is hatched.
Blake Griffin was reportedly “really pissed” that he didn’t land the role of top Clipper
Of course, it wouldn’t be cable drama without more political intrigue than a few lineages of Bush presidencies. Quinn is the most powerful Baron in terms of military power, but that’s not all it takes to rule a kingdom. He relies on the oil of The Widow (hooray for placeholder character names!), a rival Baron who has been hiring local bandits to fight him. Quinn’s son, Ryder, is also upset that he isn’t top dog, and seems to be planning to usurp his father. Throw in a couple of illicit affairs and a dash of political machinations, and it would seem that Sunny and MK have at least a season’s worth of distractions between them and Azra.
Some rather bored writing and wooden performances from the cast do not work in the show’s favor. The episode opens with some expository voiceover from MK, which is both non-recurring and unnecessary, as all the information laid out is revealed once more throughout the episode. MK’s “witty banter” was also incredibly unwelcome, and the goons that Sunny takes out at the beginning of the episode seemed to struggle to remember their lines. Just about every conversation in the premiere serves to set up the story and I found myself dozing off waiting for something cool to happen.
The pilot’s plot is no “slam dunk”
Fortunately, there is the occasional cool thing to be found waiting in the Badlands. From the aforementioned bandit confrontation to a swordfight with Clippers sent by The Widow, Sunny proves that he is a serious badass. With both blades and his fists, Sunny lays the smackdown on wave after wave of goons. Even MK is able to destroy a bully with style thanks to mysterious powers that turn him into a fighting machine when in danger. The choreography is excellent and sets and props are used to full potential. While Wu won’t be winning any awards for his dramatic portrayal of Sunny, his Wuxia-flavored acrobatics are easily worth the price of admission. INTO THE BADLANDS is plenty violent, revealing its AMC backing with yet another poor example of TV visual effects and shoddy CGI blood. Yet, also like THE WALKING DEAD, it makes up for this with some great practical effects in the form of gruesome bone breakage.
Alright, enough Clippers jokes
INTO THE BADLANDS also looks great. While some will be put off by the bright, saturated colors, there’s no denying that the production design is through the roof. Quinn’s fort is a mix of antebellum Southern plantation and Samurai fort. Walls are old shipping containers, touched up with paint and marked with his Baronial seal, disguising their scavenged nature. Quinn’s office itself is a visual treat, framed photos of MMA fighters and katana collections contrasting sharply with the neoclassical interior.
Numerical advantage means nothing to Sunny
INTO THE BADLANDS isn’t the smartest pilot on cable, but you don’t come to a show with a tagline reading “In a world without guns, fighting is an art” for revolutionary storytelling. Action and martial arts fans alike will love the kinetic fights that far outperform anything else on TV. It remains to be seen if the complicated political elements will help or hinder the show, but these Badlands are worth at least a visit.
Verdict: Sh** Probation
INTO THE BADLANDS airs on Sundays on AMC