I'm on vacation! This week, I'm taking a much-needed break to recharge the batteries and get a change of scenery. To keep things going around here, I've enlisted the help of several friends of the blog to submit guest posts on various topics of their choosing. Here's one from Keith Chow, cross-posted from The Nerds of Color.
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 show is set hundreds of years in the future, presumably after the zombie apocalypse wipes out mankind, where guns have been outlawed and civilization has degenerated into 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.
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 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 Russell Wong on Vanishing Son two decades ago, at least. Except this time, we even get two Asian American male leads.
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 a 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 CW.
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.
[Footnote 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.
[Footnote 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 diehard Smallville fanboy.