It's very easy to mistake Into the Badlands as yet another graphic novel adaptation, much like AMC's biggest hit in their brief history as an original programming network (and the biggest hit across cable overall), The Walking Dead, and the most buzzworthy show they have in production, Preacher. It's not, though, of course. Instead, executive producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar drew from the classic Chinese tale Journey to the West. But it makes sense that the producers behind proto-comic book boom adaptations like Smallville and the Tobey-Spidey era made a series that plays like that type of heightened blockbuster adaptation. It's less of the Chris Nolan style that uses comics as a launching pad to create something that transcends the material, more an entity that knows exactly what it is and where it comes from and embraces it. Which is to say, Into the Badlands (I've seen the first two episodes) is laced with tons of action, shamelessly expository dialogue, cartoonish accoutrements, and at times suss acting. And I kind of liked it for that.
There's a thin line between say, the full-on source material embrace of the Marvel movies and the F+ schlock of well, Joel Schumacher's Batman movies. Into the Badlands is a genre show, straight up. A heightened martial arts opera, the series imagines a future populated with flourishes from the past, somewhat similar to the wild western aesthetics of Joss Whedon's nonetheless intergalactic Firefly. In the wake of a ruinous, unspecified war, society has been refashioned into a scenario where "barons" rule over plantation-like estates and offer protection and shelter in exchange for indentured servitude. Guns have been outlawed, but each baron's interests are protected by elite killing-machine enforcers, also known as "clippers." Badlands follows Sunny (Daniel Wu), the lead clipper, confidant, and prodigal son of Baron Quinn (Martin Csokas), who despite a steadfast loyalty, definitely yearns for a life outside the feudal system. There's also a young kid whose eyes turn black and has superpowers.
If Badlands were shooting for prestige, then it'd be ripe for panning. Instead, at around the time Sunny had a 10-minute samurai showdown with four assailants while their boss watched from a luxury car, I had fully embraced this as a series that's extremely comfortable with itself. But it's understandable why it's been receiving lukewarm reviews—a show like this is confusing coming from the same network that brought you Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It's a jarring shift in production that hints at a larger issue within AMC.
Today as we muddle through Peak TV, hundreds of channels and hundreds more scripted series, it's hard for networks to contextualize an identity around content. CBS is for olds, ABC is ShondaLand, The CW is for tweens and DC Comics, HBO is generally reliable for a strong Sunday night? Those are all applicable labels that nonetheless only barely encompass the networks full year-round slate of programming. And what of AMC? The network that birthed itself around the series that would go on to become peak #prestige television is now in a curious place. This past spring when the camera faded to black on Don Draper's meditative face also marked an end to the brand AMC, always struggling with identity (their programming commercials are hilariously incongruous), was attempting to establish. And the curtain's been closing since Breaking Bad left airwaves in September 2013.
There's an easy answer to AMC's identity crisis and it becomes readily apparent while watching Into the Badlands. Much like "Ozymandias," the network's days of competing on a prestigious, Emmy-bait level the likes of HBO are behind it. And yet, AMC is not one to weep for. The Walking Dead has maintained its record-breaking highs. Preacher, an adaptation of one of the most beloved graphic novels ever, is one of the most anticipated debuts of 2016. They even have a reality show called Comic Book Men anchored by Kevin Smith. On the flipside, the network's biggest Ls creatively, commercially or critically and sometimes both, have come in pursuit of successors to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. There was Low Winter Sun, the wannabe The Shield that embarrassingly tried to ride Bad's final season coattails to no avail. Revolutionary War drama Turn and the Reconstruction-era Hell on Wheels endure despite collective crickets in ratings, acclaim and buzz. The only current series that recalls AMC's brand aspirations are the critically acclaimed Halt & Catch Fire, and the surprisingly worthy-of-your time Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul.
AMC had a good run producing two dramas that would go on to become arguable for top ten of all time. The current clusterfuck of television might not need another Emmy-bait network, but one that harbors and produces programming like a martial arts melodrama, two shows about the zombie apocalypse and a possessed preacher? Therein poses an opportunity to consolidate and thus strengthen the brand as a go-to home for making TV's answer to smart blockbusters. Adult, crowd-pleasing adaptations that skew heavily towards comics and other genre-based audiences and pull in big numbers. After all, Into the Badlands may fall short of replacing Mad Men or Breaking Bad on a quality level, but it does succeed in bringing a much-needed dose of expertly crafted action to TV. Like Don Draper did plenty of times, it may just be time for AMC to change the conversation.