NOC Recaps Into the Badlands: The Time is Now

Originally posted at Angry Asian Man

As we near the end of 2015, one thing is for sure: it’s a great time to be an Asian American television consumer. For the first time in history, you’ll need two hands to count the number of major television programs to feature Asian American leads! On ABC alone, you have shows like Fresh of the Boat, Dr. Ken, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Quantico.

This Sunday night, the biggest network of them all — AMC — throws its hat into the ring with Into the Badlands, a dystopian martial arts drama starring Daniel Wu. And I can safely say the show is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

The series is set hundreds of years in the future, presumably after the zombie apocalypse wipes out mankind1, where guns have been outlawed and civilization has degenerated into a feudal society in which powerful Barons rule their respective territories with the aid of loyal armies of trained assassins known as Clippers. It’s also (very) loosely based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.

Daniel Wu plays Sunny, the most feared Clipper in all of the Badlands. The series kicks off when Sunny encounters a group of bandits who are smuggling a young boy… somewhere? What ensues is probably the best martial arts sequence in the history of American television (sorry Arrow and Daredevil, but that’s kids’ stuff compared to what Daniel Wu is doing on AMC). The boy, named M.K. and played by newcomer Aramis Knight, is taken back to Sunny’s Baron — played by Marton Csokas — and is to be trained as a next-gen Clipper. Sunny eventually learns that he shares a mysterious connection to the teen, who also harbors a dark secret that a rival Baron — Emily Beecham’s Widow — is trying to uncover.

As you can probably guess, there is a lot of world building that happens in this first episode. But it’s all necessary and sucks you into the fantasy right away. Visually, the show is gorgeous with great sweeping vistas of terrain that is simultaneously futuristic and Antebellum. That’s the other thing that’s a little jarring at first. Into the Badlands feels like a mashup of a bunch of different genres. Nominally, it’s a martial arts epic, but there are elements of the western, steampunk, Southern Gothic, mythical, and superhero genres woven throughout. It even has a comic book origin story.

At its center stands Daniel Wu. Already an icon in Hong Kong, the 40-year old California native is finally staking his claim to American superstardom with this role. If the first two episodes are any indication, he’s well on his way! It’s hard to believe how groundbreaking it is to see an Asian American man play an action hero on TV. Not since Russel Wong on Vanishing Son two decades ago, at least. Except this time, we even get two Asian American male leads.

Aramis Knight as M.K.

More than that, Sunny is also in the mold of AMC’s difficult men wheelhouse that has done wonders for the careers of Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, and Andrew Lincoln. While a lot of viewers are tuning in for the fight scenes, Wu brings layers of complexity and nuance to the character that is unheard of for Asian American male leads. Sunny gets to be stoic, cold-hearted, caring, badass, and sexy all at once. Seriously, by the number of times Sunny is shirtless in the pilot, you’d think this was The CW2.

Some folks might go into this show wary of the idea that the first AMC drama to feature an Asian American male lead has to be a martial arts show. But I say you don’t need to worry. I’ve gone on record before about why we shouldn’t recoil at the idea of an Asian American-led martial arts show (take note, Marvel/Netflix!) so long as the characters are written with dimension and complexity. Into the Badlands does this, albeit in a heightened and hyper violent reality.

Besides, from what I’ve already seen, Into the Badlands breaks all kinds of racist TV tropes, and I kinda love the show because of it.

  1. Remind me to one day write about my Unified AMC Theory in which Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and now Into the Badlands all take place in the same universe. 
  2. For what it’s worth, the show is executive produced and written by Smallville creators Al Gough and Miles Millar. So it’s got that going for it as well. I say as a die hard Smallville fanboy. 

7 thoughts on “NOC Recaps Into the Badlands: The Time is Now

  1. It’s about time TV Land got with the program, now if only Hollywood would follow suit.

  2. Read This in the NYT on 11/11/15 by Robert ito: “Al Gough and Miles Millar, of “Smallville” fame, are the show’s proud creators, but on a recent afternoon at the Soho House club here, they were holding forth on another martial arts television series, “Kung Fu,” the 1970s drama with David Carradine as a Shaolin monk.

    “I actually thought it was kind of boring,” Mr. Gough, 48, said of the series, which he first saw in reruns as a boy. “There wasn’t enough fighting in it. And then I realized, Oh my God, it’s a white dude.”

    Reading further, the piece basically say Into the Badlands is an attempt to right the wrong of KUNG FU, the show from 40 years ago, which shunned Bruce Lee in favor of David Carradine because the producers didn’t think the show would go over big if it starred Bruce Lee—a Chinese American in a series about a Chinese American- (WTH?)

    All’s I can say is BRAVO!

  3. Mal posso esperar para ver os resultados desta prometedora série, que com certeza irá cair muito bem com torta salgada de frango acompanhada de umas boas doses de saquê

  4. Since you asked, I’m reminding you to write (about) your Unified AMC Theory. I want to read it.

Comments are closed.