I hate writing bad reviews. That’s a fact. Something people often forget is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of people working as hard as they can to make shows and films, and while it’s all happening, they often don’t have the foggiest idea when they’re making a bowl of shite.
That being said, I was fired up for FX’s premiere of The Bastard Executioner last night and I came away utterly disappointed. In fact, the best thing about The Bastard Executioner was the fact that this promo for the upcoming Zach Galifianakis show Baskets aired during it.
Well, rather than just abuse The Bastard Executioner for what it wasn’t, let me just sum up what it was: a miss. It’s a miss.
Some perspective: I’m a Game of Thrones fan, and I was kind of hoping that The Bastard Executioner would fill a hole for me, like when you’re all out of a certain type of breakfast cereal and you shrug and have a different breakfast cereal.
That’s not what this ended up being.
Which is weird, because I feel like the good folks at FX, who make a number of really really good shows, were specifically marketing The Bastard Executioner that way. Like “Hey! Missing Game of Thrones? We’ve got your fix!” Alas, the fix was in, because not only wasn’t The Bastard Executioner anywhere near the level of the lowest rung on the Game of Thrones ladder, it wasn’t even objectively a show I’d watch. And I heart sword n’ board like you read about. So where did they go wrong?
In short, everywhere.
The story centers around Wilkin Brattle, played by Lee Jones, a war-weary former Welsh Knight trying to scrape by during Edward III’s draconian reign. When a malicious local Baron wipes his village — and all the people in it — off of the map to send a message, Brattle begins a quest of vengeance which, presumably, we’re meant to ride shotgun on.
But they don’t make it easy. I can’t remember the last time I sighed so much during a show and there is absolutely no way I would have made it 15 minutes into this thing if I wasn’t going to write about it. Which, again, is even worse, considering that I was excited about it going in.
— The story of why Wilkin Brattle is The Bastard Executioner. If you can last that long to find out. It took an hour and forty one minutes for the show to exhibit tension, but once it did, it partially rewarded your patience.
— Kaety Sagal as some kind of witch healer lady. She’s solid, even if I had no idea what the hell she was talking about half the time. It was like watching a grownup in a ball pit. At least she knows where she is. Her costume was one adhesive face wart from Hansel & Gretel but she pulled it off (and yes, that was Katey Saga’s daughter as the Baroness’ handmaiden).
— The Baron, played by Brian F. O’Byrne. The writing of his character was for shit, so that made his performance even more impressive. He’s a good actor and I’ve liked him since he was ‘Reg’ on Prime Suspect.
— The Baronness, played by Flora Spencer-Longhurst. She has potential.
— This burnt Germanic cloaked Darth Vader burn victim meatshield (played by Kurt Sutter) who hangs out with Katey Sagal. I was like moar please. I have no idea what he is or how he got so F’d up but why wasn’t the show about him?
— Or the one black dude? Of course there was one black character, played by Danny Sapani, (who plays Sembene on Penny Dreadful) and I was delighted that he wasn’t like “the evil ambassador” or “the traitor.” Whew! Dodged a bullet! No, he was a good guy, thankfully. He was basically the modern reprisal of Morgan Freeman’s Azeem character in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a Moor living in a bowl of crackers for some reason. And for about forty minutes all he did was grunt once and I was worried that they had chosen to make him a mute. Eventually, though, the Moor spoke, and I found myself wondering about his story. Something about Danny Sapani’s appearance or presence or affect makes me naturally like him.
— Watching this show gave me a whole new respect for how difficult this genre can be, and how triumphantly good Game of Thrones is.
— Osip! And he’s a friar or something. You know that dude’s real sermon is “How to fuck shit up.” Alas, we never saw it. I really like this actor, Timothy V. Murphy, and I want to actually get to see him act. He’s got this great Ed-Harris-before-he-got-too-full-of-himself vibe.
— The look and feel is all wrong. It’s poorly lit, and visually boring. The production design was uneven. The variation between clean people who should be dirty and dirty people who shouldn’t be that dirty was jarring. Like an actress would have brown teeth but shining, Biolage hair. A farmer would return from the field without a spot of dirt on him. Peasant women wore unblemished ren faire gowns. It was truly a huge problem and made me disconnect almost immediately.
— The title sequence is a series of shots of bloody torture equipment. I’m serious. And there’s an iron throne. Not the iron throne. This one is a torture device with spikes on it, but yeaaaaahhhhhhhhhh.
— Lee Jones, as Wilkin Brattle, (which is a cool name), is fine but he doesn’t present as a fighter. His body mechanics feel wrong, and he looks like a dude that not only has never held a blade, but probably never swung anything in anger. It’s like watching a drama about a quarterback and when he finally sets to throw he limp-wrists it four feet and you’re like “Huh. That didn’t look right.” And he looked weird to me, which might just be me, because he’s obviously a handsome dude. How do you get from this:
Maybe it was the beard.
— People laughing at jokes on screen that we, the audience, don’t laugh at. This is my personal kryptonite, so I have to own it. I can’t take that shit. Within the first few minutes, we see our lead character and his wife converse with a local hayseed who is clearly in love with a sheep. They poke fun at him and it goes over his head. HO HO THE SHEEPFUCKER ISN’T THAT SWIFT. They go back to this juicy, juicy peach twice in the pilot. It’s not funny. Many of my early sighs were focused here, in addition to some head shakes and looking around the room in confusion.
— The “bad guy” played effectively if not compellingly by Steven Moyer, is someone who bones other dudes. The way it’s set up is we see him plowing someone behind like a pillar. Director Paris Barclay intentionally buries the lede so when we shift focus to reveal a man departing it comes across as a character moment, as if to say “on top of being a mustache twisting bad guy, he’s also gay.” Of course he is. That’s the level of viewer this show seems to be targeting, knuckle draggers who, in 2015, still connect gayness with badness. MEL BROOKS HOMAGE: The dude he was banging was the piss boy.
— Plodding exposition. I mean, hair-pullingly bad. You know what, show creator and writer Kurt Sutter of Sons of Anarchy fame? I didn’t necessarily need to know about the various political agendas in this region of Wales. All I wanted to connect to — all anyone ever wants to connect to — is a good story. A believable story.
— Like, for example, people don’t just leave their loved ones’ corpses laying around. Yes, people want vengeance for misdeeds, but before that, they want to make sure the uncovered bodies of their departed loved ones aren’t, say, pecked by crows. This type of oversight was glaring throughout.
— Various anachronisms, like windows in castles, or modern boots. But the choice of electric guitar over a battle scene? Wow. I mean, it’s a choice and I get it, but Papa no like.
— Battle choreography. Remember the epic Sand Snakes battle? That’s what this was.
— Snidely Whiplashes everywhere. “We’re bad ‘cuz we’re bad, motherfucker!” No compelling motivation for the dbags who were being dbags to be dbags.
— Insertacular editing. Head caved in! Sword cuts arm! Unknown Man’s Face Yells! Blood bag explodes!
— Two things, and I’M SERIOUS ABOUT THIS: Stop having dudes yell a battle cry when fighting. My god that’s some janky horseshit. That was in the show constantly. Aaaaaargh! Grrrah! Please, please, please stop that. Also, this wasn’t in the show but I’m sure it will be: not every woman giving birth has to scream like their head is on fire. Let’s not traumatize yet another generation of girls about this because dumb-ass men in charge only know one image of childbirth.
— Dodgy / cheesy mystical element: I like a supernatural angle, but the ‘angel’s call to service’ in The Bastard Executioner rang kind of hollow for me. Also, that angel had pretty Daenerys-y hair.
— I don’t mind flashbacks the way some people do, and I even like them when they’re used correctly, but the timelines were confusing enough without the “FIVE YEARS EARLIER” stuff.
— Violence without context. Just bloody as hell without any real sense of why. There were no stakes tied effectively to it, so the net result was you just kind of yawned past it. Like the one way a little boy gets killed is pretty horrific, and kids dying is something that I have a hard time watching/hearing about/processing in any way, but by the time we got to that scene, I was like “of course they’re going to kill that kid.” They were already out of shocking moves. It was like a DJ trying to one-up his own schlock: how crass can I be? How much do I have to act out before people notice? Stabbing a lady with a bun in the oven worked in Game of Thrones, right? Right?
— “Pizzolatto’s kiss.” I’m coining that phrase. Bad writing & Bad directing. The doublefecta of long-term success in entertainment.
In the end, it wasn’t something that appealed to me, which is sad because I’m ground zero for the demo that this show seems to be trying to catch. But then again, when it finally did show signs of life, nearly two hours in, I had already made my peace with it. If I had to guess, I’d think this is the type of show that will get better and more relatable as it goes on, and so perhaps it’s not fair to unilaterally dismiss it outright.
But upon first blush, it’s hackneyed and wrong-headed and sweaty. It feels like show creator Kurt Sutter pieced together from a number of sources. Let’s take Longshanks from Braveheart and the Moor from Robin Hood and ‘Dougal’ from Outlander and the character arc of Jax in Sons of Anarchy and the beards from Vikings and the CGI dragon and map zooming from Game of Thrones and make a fucking stew of it. And unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work.
While I think Lee Jones has some chops, we never really got to see them and the thing didn’t hold together. Now if you’re a person who wants a visual, renaissance faire representation of the music of Kenny Chesney, this is the show for you. If you’re a person who stands in lines a lot wearing a Nickelback t-shirt and needs something to distract you, I suppose this might do. If you’re a lover of lukewarm coffee and grade-school productions of MacBeth and spend time wishing you had more Welshmen in your life, then The Bastard Executioner might fill a void for you. Short of that, it’s best to give it a curt nod and let the door hit it where the good lord split it. Or where the faux-Targaryen angel that visits Wilkin Brattle split it. But since shows don’t have asses, this idiom doesn’t really apply.
I don’t know. This show’s dumb.