Over the first three hours of FX's “The Bastard Executioner,” we see several pitched battles involving swords, spears, and flaming arrows. We witness limbs and heads sliced clean off, sit through men in dungeons being flayed alive, watch naked woman wander through scenes of incredible carnage, and see hallucinatory images of demons, snakes, and other creatures haunt the show's eponymous hero. The series is not skimping on graphic, macabre imagery.
So why is it all so dull?
“Bastard Executioner” (it debuts tonight at 10) was created by Kurt Sutter, the man responsible for the biggest hit in FX history, “Sons of Anarchy.” Early in its run, particularly in its second season, “Sons” was one of TV's best, tightest dramas. But as the show went along, it got too big in every way, with plots contorted past all interest, and episodes expanded nearly to feature film length many weeks. Still, it was an enormous commercial success, which gave Sutter license to do basically whatever he wanted as a follow-up.
He chose the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a former soldier of England's King Edward I who has retreated to an anonymous existence as a farmer in Wales early in the 14th century. Wilkin wants nothing more than to have a peaceful life with wife Petra (Elen Rhys), but keeps getting sucked into the local rebellion against the onerous rule of the local baron (Brian F. O'Byrne) and his chief adviser Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer from “True Blood”). Through a complicated, tragic series of events, Wilkin winds up impersonating the community's new executioner, living right under the nose of his enemies as he plots revenge for a series of terrible misdeeds.
The hope was that Sutter, teaming once again with Emmy-winning director Paris Barclay, would curb some of his weaker instincts as a storyteller – to go back to the lean, mean early days of “Sons,” or his work as a writer/producer on “The Shield.” When he puts restraints on himself, Sutter can be an incredible writer, and the start of a new series seemed a fine opportunity to do exactly that.
Instead, “Bastard Executioner” more or less picks up where “Sons” left off in terms of self-indulgence. The two-hour premiere is technically two episodes aired back-to-back, but with barely enough story to fill one. It's not until the last 10 minutes or so that the show actually sets up its premise, and the time before that doesn't feel particularly well-spent in establishing who Wilkin is, beyond a man-mountain who hates how good he is with a sword in his hands. (Jones is built like an action hero, but doesn't yet have the charisma to match.) Nor do most of the supporting characters come much to life, save for the clear fun Moyer is having as a figuratively mustache-twirling villain, and the strange and unfortunate role Sutter has given wife Katey Sagal to play as Annora of the Alders, a mystic of some kind given to cryptic pronouncements delivered in a Slavic accent that seems right out of a '50s black and white monster movie. Sagal is a wonderful, natural performer – even when I couldn't fathom why anyone on “Sons of Anarchy” still wanted anything to do with Sagal's manipulative, self-aggrandizing Gemma, her power in the role was undeniable – but this is a terrible, unintentionally comical fit of actress and role.
Because the characters don't pop, the story drags until we get to Wilkin's new undercover role. And then once that happens (FX made the pilot plus next week's episode – which itself runs over 50 minutes without commercial – available for review), we're almost immediately thrust into the kind of tail-wagging-the-dog plotting that eventually consumed “Sons,” where every action Wilkin takes to get himself out of the burden of this new role only digs him in deeper(*).
(*) That was the way “The Shield” worked, too, but that show kept a tighter grip on its stories – and offered frequent breaks from that material to show what the other cops in the precinct were doing – while having more vivid characters at the center to make it work. I couldn't always tell you what exactly Vic and Shane's latest objective was, but I cared because I was invested in them as people.
The basic impostor premise is a well-worn, elastic one, that's been used in some variation in everything from “The Count of Monte Cristo” to Cinemax's terrific “Banshee” (basically, the kind of absurd, adrenaline-fueled, but riveting pulp fiction drama that Sutter kept insisting “Sons” was, long after it had become too full of itself) to TV Land's new sitcom “Impastor.” There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea, nor trying to weld it to feudal swords and mysticism tropes that turn the series into a would-be blend of “Game of Thrones,” “Vikings,” and “Braveheart.” But the end result is just too leaden, and (other than a running gag about one Welsh rebel's close relationship with his favorite sheep) too self-serious, to be particularly watchable. There's lots of torture (both physical and emotional), arcane pronouncements, and impressive production, but no compelling reason to sit through it all, especially with so many other great scripted options out there.
At the TV critics press tour last month, Sutter acknowledged that his instincts are often to make things bigger and longer than they should be, saying, “I think everything is f—ing precious and it”s not.” His original cut of the pilot was 20 minutes longer than what's going to air tonight, which is startling given what a slog the final version is. There may be a great show buried inside “The Bastard Executioner,” just as there was inside the later years of “Sons,” which periodically offered moments potent enough to break free from the mire of plot and over-long scenes. But by starting out in that state, the new show can't even provide much of a sense of what it could be if it can get out of its own way.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com