There is nothing on TV quite like AMC’s Into the Badlands. The show is bright, high-concept speculative fiction filled with hyper-violence and post-apocalyptic imagery. It combines elements of the samurai western with Mad Max and modern martial arts choreography — imagine Toshiro Mifune in full colour, on a motorcycle, killing wasteland raiders with acrobatic abandon in a lush forest and you’re getting close. Even as a collage I find it difficult to categorize Badlands beyond the strange niche of post-apocalyptic martial arts drama, and yet for all its uniqueness it feels familiar.
Into The Badlands has an illustrated title sequence set to music composed by Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda. In a way, that’s the key to why the show feels familiar despite its every attempt to break TV genre conventions. Linkin Park, a genre bending rap-rock group, has a deep association to the North American experience of Japanese anime, with their music scoring countless fan made tribute music videos. As a young, earnest nerd with a taste for alt culture I would consume these fan videos voraciously, and Into The Badlands makes me nostalgic for that specific fan-practice. That is to say, watching Into The Badlands, a live action American-made drama, feels like watching anime.
Its commitment to its high-in-the-sky concept, combined with its need to appeal to a wide audience, creates a necessity for expository dialogue. Just take the basic synopsis for example: Into The Badlands is set in the American Midwest, centuries in the future after an unspecific apocalypse has lead to widespread feudalism. Seven barons have divided up the lands, and two are coming into conflict. Our hero, Sunny (Daniel Wu), is the head assassin of the most powerful (and evil) of the feuding leaders, Quinn (Marton Csokas), and when he meets a magical boy named M.K. (Aramis Knight), his life long loyalty is tested.
M.K.’s power is key to the master plan of Quinn’s rival, The Widow (Emily Beecham), and a tug-o-war over the boy serves as a way to get to know the various aspects of the show’s baronies. While a lot of the world is shown this way rather than told to you, Badlands is so determined to be unique, with its convoluted politics and its own words for slave (cog), assassin (clipper) and bionic prosthetics (mimics), that often you’ll have to hear some hand-holding dialogue delivered with strange intention. The effect is melodramatic, and because of the modern conventions of prestige TV drama, that’s going to feel awkward to some people.
The characters in Into The Badlands are broadly drawn in an operatic fashion. Their aesthetic and weapons are as important their motivations and relationships to each other. The unwritten rule here is that if a person on screen looks cool, has a badass weapon (butterfly shaped throwing stars), or has a wicked name (The Widow), they are more important than some raider dressed in brown. Badlands is about big personalities coming into conflict with other big personalities, representing broad concepts in ethics and honour. Again, this is not the conventional way to make prestige television, but it’s a great way to make a compelling anime with a loyal following.
The two biggest criticisms I have for Into The Badlands as a live action TV show, its reliance on exposition and its broadly drawn characters, completely disappear when I think of it as a live action anime. These are conventions of the medium which can be looked past in favour of large scale thought experiments and big emotional confrontations from archetypal characters defined more by their looks and choice of weapon than their inner complexity. Into The Badlands, if it were a cartoon, would likely be an instant hit for these reasons: because its world is interesting and its characters are big.
Into The Badlands succeeds at being unique by sacrificing the elements that would signify it as the next best show on TV. Blending genres has its risks. But the creators of Badlands have committed so earnestly to their idea that I think it will find a dedicated audience. Thankfully, Into The Badlands is airing in a time where such audiences exist. They will live on message boards, they will write fan fic, they will draw art. That will have to suffice in lieu of awards.
Sunny, The Widow and M.K., their emotional conversations and blood soaked fighting, will be embraced by those who are tired of yet another dark and gritty show pretending to be smart and realistic. And while Into The Badlands might not make any critics top ten lists because of its disregard for conventional greatness, there is a possible future where it will be honoured by four minute fan montages set to the melodic scream crooning of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. It’s good enough for anime, it’s good enough for Into The Badlands.