Martial arts dramas, like musicals, can be defined as much by what happens in between all the fancy choreography as the quality of the actual fighting and/or dancing. If the story and characters aren't compelling when they're not twirling and leaping, then it places an enormous burden on the action/music to be so impressive – or, at least, so frequent – that it doesn't feel like a chore waiting for the next big set piece to arrive.
“Into the Badlands,” AMC's new series set in a dystopian future America where guns have been banned and disputes are settled with some combination of fists, feet, and swords, has some entertaining fight scenes. They're highly-stylized, employing a lot of wire fu and exaggerated effects when limbs are broken or chopped off altogether, and they tend to happen in the most dramatic conditions – a torrential downpour in an alley, an abandoned factory lit like the one where Kevin Bacon danced in “Footloose” – possible.
But they're not thrilling enough, and certainly not frequent enough, to compensate for the rest of the show.
Created by the “Smallville” team of Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the series (it debuts Sunday at 10 after “The Walking Dead”), the show's a mish-mash of stylistic devices, with a vision of the future – the complete absence of guns, a societal structure that's modeled on the feudal system but where everyone dresses like it's the Antebellum South, and what technology still exists (including the odd car or motorcycle) dates back to the 1930s – where the only guiding philosophy seems to be, “Will it look cool?” Director David Dobkin (mainly with a background in comedies like “Wedding Crashers” and “The Change-Up,” though he did direct Jackie Chan in the Gough/Millar-scripted “Shanghai Knights”) puts together some pretty compositions, both during the fight scenes and the long stretches in between them, but it's all empty and overwrought, at times – particularly anything involving Marton Csokas as Quinn, the local baron who employs our hero, futuristic samurai Sunny (Daniel Wu) – bordering on parody.
Wu, a Chinese-American actor who's spent most of his career abroad, looks the part of the badass loner, with his red leather duster, sunglasses, and twin sword blades. And he carries himself well in what we can see of him in the 2-3 fight scenes per episode. But Gough and Millar have conceived of Sunny as a stoic man of mystery, and Wu's not compelling enough when he's not about to start slicing opponents in two. Nor is Aramis Knight as M.K., a teenager who becomes an unexpected pawn in the battle between Quinn and Emily Beecham as The Widow, Quinn's closest, deadliest rival.
Doing more than two or three big fight scenes per hour is a practical impossibility in television. So even though the swordplay is fun, there's not nearly enough. In the age of Peak TV, and DVRs with multiple tuners, there might be something said for recording “Into the Badlands” to watch later when you can fast-forward straight to the action. But that's about it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org