The TV golden age has been going on for so long (13 years since the premiere of The Shield on FX) that sometimes we forget all it had given us and how it can also go so horribly wrong. For every Sons of Anarchy there’s at least one Marvel’s Agents of Shield. In fact the ratio is probably more like 1/10. When a good television studio like AMC gives itself a near sterling track record of fine programs, as it has with the likes of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead, Halt & Catch Fire, Mad Men, Hell on Wheels, and Longmire (now departed for Netflix), it can raise blinders to the potential of a misstep.
So it goes with the unmercifully awful Into the Badlands, a mind-numbingly cheesy mélange of several dudebro flavors of the month with so little going for it that of course it was AMC’s highest rated fall premiere ever and is likely now a permanent part of an otherwise fine stable.
The incredibly shallow story picks up in a semi-distant future where—and you’ll have to pardon the thick tone of dismissiveness I write with here—vague wars have dominated the landscape to the point that seven barons take over society, outlaw guns (ugh, it’s “timely”), and return civilization to a feudal state where their legions of soldiers and slaves live hand-to-mouth fighting each other with only blades. If you’re thinking right now, “Gee, that sounds sort of interesting…” not only do I hate you, but wait, there’s more. The “badlands,” as it’s known for some inexplicably stylish but tremendously vapid reason, is a mix of the Wild West, the Roaring Twenties, and of course feudal Japan, because as the last 20 years of dudebro culture have taught us: “Asian dudes, am I right? They often know karate and really know how to dress to impress on the battlefield,” or some even more offensive version of that thought that this show’s creators no doubt had in mind when they were crafting the premise.
Oh, and they have electricity, motorcycles, and cars. But no phones, walkie-talkies, or other means of long-range communication. Such a thing would make it pointless for them to travel long distances just to talk to someone, something that happens several times per episode. Did I mention they have cars? Because it takes a really exceptional creative team to envision a world where people know how to build and maintain internal combustion engines but can’t figure out how to build a cannon. It would be roughly akin to Doc Brown knowing how to build a time machine, but not a can opener.
The only high points of the production are the at-times fun sword fight sequences. As an homage to classic samurai films, this show is worse than trash, but as an homage to the American films of the late 90s and 2000s which were themselves clearly obsessed with those samurai films, it’s pretty good. The action is fast and plentiful and doesn’t really smack of television as most action shows for the small screen do. Of course the action is also hindered by moronic set-ups like an episode where 30 guys with teeny tiny axes surround the hero who has six-foot-long swords, and then they all just take turns swinging them around their heads while he slashes them from a safe distance. I don’t claim to be a master or anything, but I probably would have just hit him in the head with a rock, or I don’t know, attacked him at the same time as everyone else, instead of one by one.
If you’re still hip to TV’s golden age, don’t fret, there are tons of good new programs out there. But don’t make the mistake of wandering Into the Badlands; you’ll want to shoot yourself and you won’t be able to find a pistol.
By Ygal Kaufman