In “The Bastard Executioner,” which debuts Tuesday on FX, body parts are separated from bodies, animals and people are disemboweled, children suffer as much violence as adults and there are more stab wounds than one can reasonably count.
Despite those bloody facts, the question isn’t, “Why is there so much violence?” It should go without saying that bloodshed and pain can serve worthy dramatic purposes. A variety of dramas, including, at times, creator Kurt Sutter’s previous show, “Sons of Anarchy,” have found creative and useful ways to demonstrate how brutal physical clashes can be an unavoidable echo of the unrest that simmers inside people and communities. There’s no question that violence has a place in popular culture, even if, at this moment in television’s history, graphic depictions of it occasionally come close to drowning out other kinds of other meditations on spiritual and political unrest.
No, the question about “The Bastard Executioner” isn’t, “Why does this tale of rebellion and subversion feature so much death and torture?” It's, "Why is this whole enterprise so tedious?"
You wouldn’t think a show that regularly slices people up would lack focus, energy and momentum, but this one does.
On paper, the existence of this drama makes sense. FX certainly isn’t blind to the success of epics like “Game of Thrones” and “Vikings,” and to have Sutter, one of the most successful creators in the network’s history, bring a swords-beards-mysticism saga to life must have seemed like a logical idea. In execution, “The Bastard Executioner,” which is set in 14th Century Wales, even bears notable similarities to “Sons of Anarchy,” which was critically successful for a while and commercially successful for much longer. Both shows feature lots of bearded and burly dudes who call each other “brother,” there are regular dustups, whispered conferences and bone-crunching battles, and the plot is driven by shifting alliances and misunderstandings that often lead to quests for vengeance. Details big and small recall the long-running biker drama: There are lusty sex scenes and sturdy leather accessories, and Katey Sagal plays a key pot-stirring role.
In the early going, however, “The Bastard Executioner” is too often stuck in neutral.
The first two installments -- one of which is two hours long, the other of which goes well past the usual drama running time of 42 to 44 minutes -- are clearly designed to get viewers to care about the plight of Wilkin Brattle (newcomer Lee Jones). Aside from the moments in which Stephen Moyer and a few supporting actors are on the screen, however, the show fails to ignite in any sustainable and meaningful way. Once I’d finished the first two episodes, Wilkins’ status as a man of secrets caught between the oppressed Welsh and the conquering English was no more interesting to me than before I’d sat down to watch.
“I would like to reiterate a belief: Dramas don’t get a season to hook the average viewer. They get one episode. Maybe two.”
Creators often lament the fact that the 42 minutes usually afforded pilots isn’t enough time to properly set up a drama, and even though that time limit can expand up to an hour depending on the show's venue, I’m still sympathetic to that complaint. Having to start a story from scratch and introduce multiple characters and locations can lead to situations in which efficient pilots seem bloodless and less successful ones come off as pointless. It’s an extremely hard nut to crack, but it helps if there’s real flair or distinctiveness in the DNA of the show’s core elements, if the cast is charismatic, or if the moral or thematic questions are undeniably engaging.
But most of what “The Bastard Executioner” is attempting, especially in the realm of mysticism, morality and belief, has been done with much more subtlety and depth on “Vikings” (which has also been hauntingly gorgeous from day one). When it comes to evoking an epic feel, even in its rocky first season, “Game of Thrones” looked far more expensive and expansive than the FX drama.
Moyer is uniformly excellent as plotting courtier Milus Corbett, which is a real accomplishment, given that most of the English characters are one-dimensional villains. Sagal is a very talented actress, but her healer/witch character, Annora, is stranded in an uninteresting and preposterously melodramatic subplot. And though Jones is a reasonably decent actor, nothing about Brattle’s character, history or motivations is all that unique or compelling. When mechanical, contrived plot turns started piling up, the show began to remind me of the unsatisfying later seasons of “Sons of Anarchy,” which often wasted its great cast on meaningless excursions and nonsensical complications.
Between its first two installments, “The Bastard Executioner” had more than 170 commercial-free minutes to hook me, and it didn’t. Despite director Paris Barclay’s repeated attempts to amp up the energy, which worked in some instances, especially in the battle scenes, the show's world-building and characters were so bland and unremarkable that the dilemmas of Brattle and his friends ended up being simply … boring.
And it’s at that point that all the bloodshed and body-slicing start to feel like punishments for the viewer. Violence in service of rewarding themes or ideas is one thing; when there’s no there there, it’s less easy to tolerate. Even though I must gird myself to watch it, “Hannibal's” atmosphere of mournful, elegant dread is entirely addictive, and even pulpier fare like “Spartacus,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Peaky Blinders” and “Vikings” have used grotesque and horrendous moments exceptionally well. Deployed thoughtfully, life-and-death moments can be terrific character-building tools. But violence in service of a meandering tale that fails to consistently deliver entertainment, arresting aesthetics or gripping drama is simply deadening.
The issue of violence aside, “The Bastard Executioner” isn’t alone in its tendency toward bloat and indulgence. One unfortunate byproduct of the age of Peak TV is that we’re enduring the Rise of the Slog.
The Slog is drama that tries to be more than just a good TV show about interesting people -- it is also About Something. These ambitious or ambition-adjacent programs are usually found on the better basic cable channels, pay-cable channels and streaming sites, though the Slog can found on the broadcast networks too. But its most familiar habitat is prestige-oriented platforms, which, in recent years, have let too many dramas, well, run amok. Yes, there are a lot of great dramas these days -- which is partly a function of a world with more than 400 scripted primetime shows this year alone -- but in far too many instances, we're being asked to endure the unfocused or ill-conceived output of would-be auteurs and the Slogs they create for networks and platforms that should know better.
Some of these Slogs include the following shows (and your mileage may vary): “Bloodline,” “Fear the Walking Dead,” “Hand of God,” "The Newsroom," “Marco Polo,” “The Strain,” “Complications,” “Ray Donovan,” “True Detective” Season 2, “Bosch,” “Magic City,” “Turn,” “Boss,” “Extant.” It pains me to say it, but “The Good Wife” turned into a slog for long sections of its most recent season. “Masters of Sex” has fallen into a sloggy swamp, and “The Affair” Season 2 appears poised to follow it. While working my way through Season 3 of “Orange Is the New Black,” I’ve had the heretical thought that most episodes should be 10 to 15 minutes shorter. It’s become a bit of a slog.
What in the world is going on here? Even a formerly nimble show infected with the Slog virus? It's troubling, as troubling as the slide of "True Detective" toward comical self-indulgence. Even if you partly disagree with my assessments of the roster above, haven’t you felt of late, more often than you should, that watching dramas that purport to be in the higher tiers of TV felt like work? How is that a good thing when there’s so much TV out there and we can just jump to something else? In the age of Peak TV, there are fewer reasons to make Slogs, but more are being churned out. Why?
I opined on some of the reasons behind the Rise of the Slog recently, so I won’t flog that dead horse (an act of violence mercifully left out of “The Bastard Executioner”). But I would like to reiterate a belief: Dramas don’t get a season to hook the average viewer. They get one episode. Maybe two, if they’re lucky. If the entire season hooks that viewer even more deeply, that’s fantastic! Every episode should ideally draw the viewer more deeply into the world being created. But Episode 1 should be wonderful, or at least intriguing in multiple ways. Critics often get a number of episodes and we counsel patience if we think a show deserves it, but no matter what kind of show a writer is making, the creator and the network should truly respect the limited free time of audience members. It's one of life's most precious commodities.
Even if a show’s subject matter is dark and troubling, the drama itself should not feel like homework that sets up future homework assignments. We've all seen this happen with a favorite author: Once that writer has a few bestsellers under his or her belt, editors don't edit them as heavily and the resulting work can lose its tautness, shape and forward moment. But every book should make a reader want to keep turning the pages, just as every drama should set hooks that keep people coming back. Those hooks can be unexpected and idiosyncratic and of course, they won't all look the same, but every show needs to provide reasons to return. TV is spending a lot of money right now on high-profile novels that, based on an extensive amount of anecdotal evidence (and cancellations), are only partly read and never picked up again.
I can think of dozens of drama pilots from the last few years where my interest has been piqued right off the bat. Among them: “Peaky Blinders,” “Happy Valley,” “The Americans,” “The Returned,” “True Detective” Season 1, “Penny Dreadful,” “Borgen,” “Homeland,” “The Man in the High Castle,” O.G. “OITNB,” “Mr. Robot,” “UnREAL,” “Fargo,” “The Knick,” “The Flash,” “Banshee,” “Outlander” and many, many more.
“But wait,” you say, “some of those shows were low-rated.” Well, a number of them did just fine, were highly touted by the critics and the media (an important factor in an age of glut), or had a some kind of impact on the public. Also, how’s this for a two-hour pilot that worked like gangbusters? “Lost,” anyone?
I don’t want “The Bastard Executioner” to imitate “Lost” or any other ambitious drama from TV’s vast and increasingly accessible library. But in an age of an enormous array of options, I want shows to make very strong cases for their existence, episode after episode. They should not gesture at meaning while they fail to engage and yet expect viewers to stay patient for ages.
Each show now gets fewer at-bats. More than ever, it needs to make them count.
Ryan McGee and I talk about "The Carmichael Show," "You're the Worst," "The Bastard Executioner" and the rise of the Slog in the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.
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