At the New York Television Festival in October, AMC’s president of original programming and development, Joel Stillerman, broke down AMC’s strategy to identify multiple, diverse passionate audiences -- the network targeted horror audiences with "The Walking Dead," for example -- and serve all of them. In the upcoming “Into the Badlands,” which premieres on Sunday, the network is taking aim at an audience and a genre that has been nearly non-existent on TV -- martial arts. However, doing something completely new is never without its challenges.
“Into the Badlands” is not just a martial arts show. It is a fantasy show. The series takes place in a world where feudal barons rule over a warrior class of poor commoners in a gun-free, dystopian version of America. There are seven barons in total -- Quinn (Marton Csokas) and his calculating wife, Lydia (Orla Brady) are the most powerful – all of whom lord over their allotted section of the Badlands with the help of an army of former impoverished children known as Clippers.
Series star Daniel Wu plays Sunny, the most feared Clipper of them all. Quinn keeps Sunny and the other Clippers under his thumb by convincing them they are better off under his rule than outside the Badlands where they would struggle to survive. However, when a young boy named M.K. (Aramis Knight), who possesses a dark secret and a supernatural power, shows up in the Badlands, Sunny starts to reevaluate his world.
How the audience evaluates Sunny’s world will be the key to the success of “Into the Badlands,” but let’s get this out of the way first – the martial arts scenes are fantastic. Fight director Stephen Fung has taken great pains to capture the authenticity of "Hong Kong" style martial arts and Wu, a superstar in the Chinese film world, is most comfortable when he is dealing out some punishment to ill-fated bad guys. The choreography often dazzles, as in the opening scene of episode 2, in which rival baron the Widow (Emily Beechum) disposes of some would-be assassins and proves that this show does not plan on depriving its female characters of all the fun.
Watch the Widow put a stop to an ambush in "Into the Badlands" below:
Martial Arts aficionados will be delighted to finally see the art form hit the small screen in a big way, but it is the fantasy element of the series that makes it harder to stomach. “Into the Badlands,” unlike “Game of Thrones,” is not working off a previously established world from any novel or comic book. It is working in uncharted territory and much of the series’ early hours – and there are only six episodes in Season 1 -- are spent explaining the world to its new fans. That is necessary, but something gets lost in the shuffle.
At the New York Television Festival, Stillerman revealed the most important factor separating great shows from the mediocre.
"The most basic common thread [in all AMC shows] is a fundamental belief that character dictates story, not the other way around," said Stillerman. "What separates 'M*A*S*H' from every other doctor show? Good characters."
Unfortunately, character is lacking in the early going for “Into the Badlands.” The amount of exposition in the first episodes almost necessitates overly archetypal characters. Sunny is a veteran warrior questioning the morality of all that killing, but we rarely get to see what makes the relentlessly stoic hero tick. M.K. has shades of Arya Stark as he struggles to survive in a dangerous place very far from home, but he is too often relegated to a deer-in-the-headlights plot device for the other power players to manipulate. The actors all do their level best. Csokas and Brady, especially, seem to be having fun with a very “Macbeth”-influenced relationship and Ally Ioannides’ Tilda, introduced in episode 2, brings a fun sense of mystery. However, character development too often takes a back seat to plot in the series.
Ultimately, the first two episodes, which are all that have been made available to the press so far, feature way too much stage-setting to adequately assess the ceiling for this show. There is plenty of non-martial arts related promise. The world does get more interesting the further into the story viewers get and the production design and cinematography turns the balmy Louisiana plantations where the show was filmed into a lush fantasy world. It is also undeniably refreshing to see an Asian lead in a major cable series.
In the end, the show should be judged by all six episodes. Perhaps the characters will catch up in strength and complexity to the martial arts down the road. The opportunity is certainly there. Until then, though, the series runs the risk of being just a little bit too niche.
"Into the Badlands" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. EDT on AMC. Watch the trailer for "Into the Badlands" below: