AMC runs on “The Walking Dead,” and for good reason. The zombie apocalypse series is still television’s biggest hit, even though its ratings are lower than in prior seasons. This strong viewership becomes even more important as AMC relies on “The Walking Dead” to endure through an extended transitional period following the loss of “Breaking Bad” and the recently concluded “Mad Men.” Already, the network has released a spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead,” and now plans to use “The Walking Dead” ’s substantial audience to build a lead-in for its new martial arts series, “Into the Badlands.”
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where guns have been banned and seven barons fight for power, “Into the Badlands” presents a world where hand-to-hand combat reigns supreme with visual flair. This strong display masks some lackluster storytelling, but it can’t hide every shortcoming.
“Into the Badlands” follows Sunny (Daniel Wu, “The Man with the Iron Fists”), the best warrior (or “Clipper”) under Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas, “The Lord of the Rings”). Right away, the series establishes its protagonist as a force to be reckoned with. Drawing from Chinese kung-fu influences, action director Stephen Fung (“Tai Chi Hero”) and martial arts coordinator Huan-Chiu Ku (“Fist of Legend”) develop an over-the-top style, where combatants move with almost inhuman speed and agility as they fight to the death. One standout scene is a rain-drenched battle between Sunny and four bowler-hat-wearing assassins sent by Quinn’s rival baron, the Widow (Emily Beecham, “28 Weeks Later”). The fight is shot with cinematic flair; long takes and slow motion create an engrossing sequence that never overuses any one effect.
As Sunny, Wu and his stunt double Tengfei Tang (“The Forbidden Kingdom”) bear the most weight in selling these sequences, they’re up to the task — not just pulling off the choreography, but bringing a cool confidence to the warrior. Sunny is a conflicted fighter who swears loyalty to Quinn, a man who saved him years ago, but wishes to define his own path in life. This desire manifests itself in Sunny’s forbidden relationship with a doctor, Veil (Madeleine Mantock, “Edge of Tomorrow”). Always stoic, Wu hides Sunny’s torment under a collected demeanor. It’s a straightforward character and could benefit from more nuance as Sunny tries to define his existence.
Sunny’s difficult situation is heightened after he rescues the mysterious young man, M.K. (Aramis Knight, “Ender’s Game”), in the episode’s opening. Claiming to come from somewhere beyond the Badlands, M.K. is supposed to bring a new hope to Sunny, but the character is incredibly grating. Whether it’s poor writing or bad delivery on Knight’s part, M.K. usually comes off as a smart-ass brat. After hearing Sunny’s name, he snidely remarks, “Why? Because you brighten everybody’s day?” If that reads poorly on paper, it sounds even worse when spoken. Hopefully, M.K. improves, as the show has invested a lot in exploring the character’s enigmatic origins and abilities. However, if Knight can’t endear M.K. to the audience, his journey of discovery will instead become an unwelcome labor for viewers who would rather spend time with someone else — potentially on another network.
The other storylines also struggle to distinguish themselves. Quinn deals with a discontented son, Ryder (Oliver Stark, “My Hero”), who the warlord believes isn’t ready to take his place. Meanwhile, Quinn’s new wife, Jade (Sarah Bolger, “Once Upon a Time”) competes with Quinn’s first wife and current matriarch, Lydia (Orla Bradley, “American Odyssey”). While not necessarily terrible, these threads lack any real intrigue in their current forms. “Into the Badlands” needs to improve its storytelling or risk becoming an unwelcome delay between excellent fight scenes.
However, there are other elements that stand out for the new series. A strong production design creates an interesting atmosphere and sparks interest in the show’s larger world. Quinn’s plantation-like fortress calls into question how other pockets of civilization and culture have developed and how the other barons manage their holdfasts. However, there are some elements that don’t mix well: the Eastern-influenced, warrior class Clippers occasionally clash with the Southern antebellum and old West aesthetic that most of the other characters have.
As a companion to “The Walking Dead,” “Into the Badlands” works well as a visually engrossing action series. It’s lighter fare than its emotionally exhausting lead-in, but “Into the Badlands” needs to strengthen its narrative to live up to its own visual standards and to keep its promising audience.