There’s an inherent sense of dread that comes with watching a new Kurt Sutter story unfold, whether it’s a new season of his hit show, the first Act of a highly successful feature film, or a new series. Since his days writing on The Shield, he’s gained a reputation for putting his characters through supremely Fucked Up Shit. But in the wake of Sons of Anarchy’s disappointing series finale, there’s a new layer of apprehension going into the next Sutter project. Does he still have it? Or are the problems that sent SoA off-road only going to magnify from here on out?
Sons fell victim to bloated storylines, wheel-spinning and a narrative that was at times either redundant or dishonest. But what really felled the Hamlet on Harleys saga was its success—or rather, the increasing creative control that success awarded its showrunner—and what Sutter did with it. By its final season, Sons was a cable blockbuster second only to The Walking Dead; Sutter responded to his network-bestowed clout by padding out a storyline that could’ve been breathtaking over 10 episodes into 13 instead... with almost all airing with 90-minute running times (with commercials, but still).
As such, The Bastard Executioner (TBX for short), Sutter’s new series not even a year after the curtain fell on Sons, gets off to a rocky start in a dovetail of his worst instincts. Set in 14th century British-occupied Wales, TBX follows the journey of Wilkin Brattle, a retired British knight who, after the events of the pilot, becomes the eponymous executioner. An all too predictable turn of events renders the usual stomach-turning dread inert—an emptiness spread over the better part of the pilot’s NINETY-minute running time, because once again Kurt can’t control himself. As Wilkin, newcomer Lee Jones does little to inspire with a performance so unassertive that I instead spent his screen time wondering if he's the weird offspring of John Krasinski and Zachary Levi. The rest of the cast is equally dull; the only person having fun is True Blood’s Stephen Moyer, electrifying every shot he’s in as the scenery-chewing, mustache-twirling British bad guy. The usually reliable Katey Sagal is hindered by a hilariously ridiculous Romanian (I guess?) accent and general goofy behavior as Sutter overplays her hidden motives.
The first three episodes (one and two combine to form a two-hour episode that will air as one when the series debuts tomorrow) are enough to make one long that much more for the return of Game of Thrones, where the medieval flavor isn’t poured on with Canterbury Tales-style Old English dialect that leaves the viewer self-translating just to keep up with the plot and the graphic violence, that while occasionally problematic, at least has substance beyond being awful just because. And if that comparison seems unmatched, just know that across the first three episodes, themes of existentialism and the supernatural are hinted at and flirted with. Too bad they lack any kind of visual flair to fully convey the shared visions and nightmares.
The bulk of the pilot plays like a community-theater rendition of the first acts of Braveheart or Gladiator, packed with predictability and cliché (at one point Wilkin actually, hilariously says, “No, this is my fight” to a group of men that all literally have the the same rightful desire for vengeance). I really have no idea why Wilkin, given his emotional state, makes the choices he does at the end of the pilot, but it does beget an intriguing setup for the series ahead...that the following episode then squanders with more shoddy characterization, more of Lee Jones being uninteresting, and a mediocre Executioner’s Case of the Week.
But, worth remembering: Sons of Anarchy roared onto television with a meh but potentially promising pilot that ended up maturing into a bona fide grade-A debut season (Opie & Donna 4Ever). Much like Jones, Charlie Hunnam was an awkward newcomer, but we'd soon go from laughing at his bad American accent to praising him as one of the Emmy's most heinous snubs. I wouldn’t count Kurt out just yet. But in the ever widening TV landscape, where a glut of choices can make choosing which shows to watch as cutthroat as the villains Sutter creates, right now TBX isn’t inspiring me to suffer through its growing pains.