When your weird little genre show turns out to be the biggest thing on TV, how do you follow it up? If you’re AMC, you come up with another genre show.
You might imagine that hosting two of the most iconic, critically acclaimed shows of the last decade – Mad Men and Breaking Bad – would have been enough to vault AMC to a commanding position among TV networks, but nope: it was zombies. While Walter White and Don Draper languished in the ratings, The Walking Dead has been the biggest show on television for five-plus seasons now, and the network is doubling down on its genre winnings with this summer’s launch of the prequel series Fear the Walking Dead and this Sunday’s premiere of the post-apocalyptic kung fu series Into the Badlands, created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who were responsible for the hit genre series Smallville.
Set in a post-apocalyptic society controlled by seven different (and rival) Barons, the series follows Sunny (Daniel Wu), an assassin (or “Clipper”) and adviser to the most powerful Baron, who’s facing a challenge from a new Baron while also fighting to protect a teenager with a secret and a price on his head. And there’s a lot of kicking.
Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield says this isn’t a genre show; it’s every genre show:
The last remnants of known civilization are controlled by evil barons like Sunny’s master, Quinn, the marvelous Marton Csokas. With his quasi-Amish beard and starched collars, the baron rules his opium empire while playing old blues records on the Victrola in his mansion, living large on a plantation surrounded by poppy fields. “People once thought there’s a Holy Book,” he proclaims in his Colonel Sanders drawl to his private army. “They believed it held the answers from a god that would save them. Boys, there is no god in the Badlands.” He controls the poppy supply; the Widow, played by Emily Beecham, controls the oil, along with her all-girl army of Butterflies. She’s the liveliest villain in the tale — think Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks in full-on Marilyn mode, except Joan Holloway Harris never got to enjoy the pleasure of separating the McCann Erickson creeps' skulls from their shoulders. Ally Ioannides is her deadliest protogree Tilda, the Butterfly warrior as a punk rock Arya. It was the Baron who found Sunny as a child, shivering and abandoned, and trained him as a Clipper; he is now his bloodiest enforcer, with the tattoos to prove it. “No parents, no name, no past,” the Baron says. “I figured if the Badlands hadn’t killed him, there must be a strength inside him.” (This is the kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland that has motorcycles, but not guns, which is convenient for professionals who specialize in kicking hombres in the face.) When a woman in his bed purrs, “I know buried under all this ink is a good man,” Sunny just mutters, “You’re wrong.” But he’s starting to wonder if there’s a better way somewhere else. And on Into the Badlands, the tough question is who he’ll have to kill to get there.
Terry Terrones of the Colorado Springs Gazette is on board:
Daniel Wu isn’t someone most American audiences are familiar with, but he makes a strong first impression. Within the first five minutes of the premiere episode Wu is punching, kicking and laying waste a large group of enemies in impressive fashion. This and subsequent fight scenes felt like something from The Matrix - but with a lot more broken limbs and without guns. Wu, who was born and raised in California but made a name for himself as an actor in Hong Kong, has a quiet confidence and strong presence. “Into the Badlands” is exactly the kind of series that allows him to show off his physicality and straight-forward acting style. AMC has a lot of experience with the post-apocalyptic genre and it shows with this new series. The world of Into the Badlands is vivid, vibrant and full of character. It looks like an environment that could exist in a dystopian future. There are giant poppy fields, wide swaths of farmland, sparse technology and groups of people struggling to make a better life for themselves through the only currency left - physical toil through labor or combat. AMC has created an immersive, believable world that is easy to get lost in. Inhabiting this world are a number of interesting characters. Aside from Sunny, viewers will meet M.K. (Aramis Knight), a young man with unusual powers that he neither understands or can control. Baron Quinn, played by “that guy” actor Marton Csokas, is the Badlands' most powerful man. Cunning and dangerous, he’s losing himself to illness. But perhaps my favorite secondary character is the Black Widow (Orla Brady). A new baron, she’s a schemer who’s as deadly with a knife as she is beautiful. All of three of these actors admirably fill the void when Wu isn’t onscreen.
The A.V. Club’s Vikram Murthi has his problems with the series but can’t deny the fight scenes:
In spite of the series’ poor structural and narrative choices, Into The Badlands’ fight scenes are stellar. Fight director Stephen Fung brings the series its only spark of life with devilish, elaborate sequences of blood and mayhem. When Sunny dispatches some of The Widow’s bandits outside Quinn’s fort, director David Dobkin (Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers) shoots the rain-soaked scene with an innate sense of rhythm, treating it more like dance and less like a battle. But it’s Fung and Wu, an active martial artist himself, that elevate the scene to delirious heights. In fact, every fight scene, even the more modest ones, stand out so much because of their direction and choreography. It’s frustrating to have to return to the dull plot when the combat inevitably ends. Though it’s absurd to ask a television series to only be fight sequences, Into The Badlands would be a much better series if it didn’t treat these moments like little pieces of candy within a plate of gruel.
Calling the show “a welcome addition to the television scene,” Variety’s Maureen Ryan likes the lead performances:
Wu has the charisma and the action chops to play a quiet man who can believably dish out punishment that reflects disciplined training and a tenacious will. Sunny is the kind of character that is standard in this genre: He’s got a mysterious past, a complicated present and mulls a future free of an erratic and dangerous boss. Wu brings soulful presence and watchful energy to Sunny, who also has to contend with what “Game of Thrones” fans would call a Joffrey problem. Like a Lannister, Baron Quinn may be cutthroat, but he’s a canny strategist as well. His son Ryder, on the other hand, is half as intelligent as his father and much more impulsive and spoiled. Emily Beecham is convincingly driven as the treacherous Widow, who gets a satisfying action sequence of her own in the second episode, and one hopes Orla Brady, who brings depth and texture to any role, will get more to do as Quinn’s observant wife.
And Deadline Hollywood’s Dominic Patten loves it:
But action is nothing much without story and, though sometimes a bit slow in the carefully measured plot, the story in ITB is intriguingly based on the 16th century tale Journey To The West. The six-episode hourlong series depicts a Southern gothic-tinged, gun-free, godless America long after a great war, where seven barons rule the feudal lands with unsentimental ruthlessness enforced by armies of fighters called Clippers. And, to paraphrase Blade Runner, if you’re not Clipper, you’re little people. Among the greatest of Clippers is Wu’s Sunny, who serves the Baron Quinn, played like ultimate Amish evil by the too-often-overlooked Marton Csokas. Add to the mix a war brewing among the Barons and the newly empowered Widow, portrayed with icy cool by Emily Beecham, and you have an upside-down world about to flip even more. On top of that, there’s the mysterious and powerful M.K. (Aramis Knight), a young man Sunny saves and brings on as his protégé, and you have journey of change on many levels. And it is a journey well worth taking – so suit up.
Into the Badlands premieres at 10pm ET Sunday on AMC; episodes will also be available On Demand the day after premiere.