If Into the Badlands had only one thing to recommend it, that would be that it's the best martial-arts show in the history of American television. Most of the show's production values appear to be invested in staging the fight scenes, which rise by the end of the first six-episode season to a level of kinetic energy that puts most superhero shows to shame. The postapocalyptic setting -- some technology survives but guns apparently haven't -- frees Badlands from any obligation to realism, allowing creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (of Smallville fame) to indulge every fantasy of martial and spiritual superpower until the characters who appear in the last episode to make mincemeat of our hitherto-invincible protagonist may as well be comic-book supervillains -- if they're villains at all, that is. Badlands thrives on ambiguity, though it leans toward cynicism. There may be no good guys at all in this world, except maybe for the protagonist, Sunny (Daniel Wu). He's a Clipper, an elite fighter and killer who serves Quinn (Marton Csokas), one of the Barons who rule the Badlands. Somehow Sunny has a sense of honor that sometimes clashes with Quinn's amoral or simply impulsive imperatives. For example, when his doctor gives him a terminal diagnosis Quinn wants it covered up and orders Sunny to kill the doctor and his wife. Sunny won't do it, in part because their daughter (Madeleine Mantock) is his secret girlfriend, so Quinn, a formidable warrior in his own right, has to do the job himself. Sunny is so invaluable, however, that Quinn lets a normally fatal act of insubordination pass, little knowing that, worse still in the world of genre TV, Sunny's keeping secrets from him. The first secret is the girlfriend, who ends up the local doctor by default, from whom Sunny must keep secret his own passive complicity in her parents' deaths. The next secret takes us to the meat of the show.
In the first episode Sunny rescues a teenager (Aramis Knight) known only as M.K. -- for Mortal Kombat??? -- from some marauding nomads. M.K. looks like a likely Colt or apprentice clipper for Quinn's army, but Sunny doesn't realize exactly what potential the boy has until M.K. bleeds in a training bout. Shed his blood and M.K. becomes a black-eyed wrecking machine of superhuman power. The Badlands Barons have a vague notion of such people existing. The one female Baron, known as The Widow (Emily Beecham) has the best notion of what M.K. is and wants him, as an exception to her usual all-female rule (not counting some guys who are clearly cannon fodder) as a secret weapon against the other Barons, whom she sees, at least for propaganda purposes, as perpetuators of an oppressive patriarchy. Complicating her plans are Sunny, for starters, and the stirring of feminine feelings for M.K. in one of the Widow's Butterflies, her equivalents of Colts and/or Clippers. Worse yet, Tilda (Ally Ioannides) apparently is the Widow's own daughter, unless "Mother" is an honorific all Butterflies use. Sunny's challenge is to keep M.K.'s potential secret from Quinn, who'd exploit the boy just as the Widow wants to, keep M.K. safe from the Widow herself, and find out why M.K. has a medallion similar to one of his own, showing an Oz-like towered city called Azra. Sunny's endgame is to escape the Badlands with M. K. and Veil the doctor and learn more about his own possible connection to this mysterious place.
Meanwhile, Quinn has more problems that his health and the Widow's aggression. His wives are scheming against each other and one of them sleeps with his son, who's also plotting a double-coup d'etat with a Clipper from another barony. How are you supposed to run an opium plantation with all this drama? No wonder Quinn's head hurts, but that's not the only thing that'll hurt before the season's over. Hardly anyone gets away unscathed, as the final episode kills folks off and throws multiple cliffhangers at us in its bid for renewal.
I'd like to see a second season. Daniel Wu is a bit of a stiff as an actor but still projects the stalwart quality that's essential for Sunny to be our protagonist. He's surrounded by far more colorful characters and benefits from the contrast, appearing more the oldschool strong, relatively silent type. In any event, Wu isn't here to act; he's here to fight and, boy, does he fight! See above: best martial arts I've seen on American television. The other actors, particularly Csokas and Beecham, put up decent fights themselves. Beyond that, Badlands has that essential feel of a thoroughly imagined fantasy world with lots left for us to explore in future seasons. Oddly, and to preview a future review slightly, I found the fantasy world of Badlands more convincing than that of Gough and Millar's other big project, The Shannara Chronicles, even though that show's based on a long-running series of fantasy novels. I suspect that venue makes a big difference in overall quality. Shannara is on MTV while Badlands is on AMC, home of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Walking Dead, and thus has a very high standard to maintain, but not a demographically narrow audience to pander to. It'll never live up to those other shows' standard of writing or acting, I presume -- I watch or have watched exactly none of them -- but after just six episodes Badlands is already a strong contender for best action show on television. Imagine where it might go if given a chance to really cut loose.