Alibi V.29 No.30 • July 23-29, 2020 

Idiot Box

Arthur Who?

“Cursed” on Netflix

Cursed
Property of Netflix

The mythology of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is so ingrained in Western culture that it has served as the basis for countless stories over countless generations. Reimagined, recontextualized, recast and retold, the legend has gone through an unimaginable number of permutations—from Sir Thomas Mallory’s L’Morte d’Arthur to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, from George Romero’s motorcycle-centric movie Knightriders to Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland’s futuristic comic book Camelot 3000. Now Netflix dips its toe in the sword-and-sorcery-filled lake, adapting author Thomas Wheeler and illustrator Frank Miller’s heavily illuminated YA fantasy novel Cursed. The result is something less than a “reimagination” of the venerable myth and something closer to a random fantasy series with a handful of familiar character names.

Wheeler and Miller’s original book found its new take on the Camelot story by concentrating on the Lady of the Lake, an enchantress known as Nimue, famous for handing the magical sword Excalibur to Arthur, enchanting Merlin and raising Lancelot as a child (unless that was a different Lady of the Lake—few of the traditional texts agree with one another). Netflix’s gung-ho series starts by introducing us to our young Nimue (Australian Katherine Langford from Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”). She’s a sorceress-in-training, a descendant of England’s ancient fairy folk (or maybe she’s a half fairy. Or something. The show doesn’t really go into detail). When her tiny village is attacked by a group of Crimson Paladins (a sect of fanatical militant monks so dedicated to the cause they’ve branded crosses into their skulls). Seems the Paladins and their leader, Father Carden (Peter Mullan, adding some class to the proceedings), are trying to wipe out all trace of the fae folk. (It’s what Jesus would want, I guess.) While huts are burning and various villagers are roasting on crosses, Nimue’s dying mom hands off a certain magical blade and tasks her daughter with delivering it to the famed magician Merlin.

Before you can say “It’s adventure time!” Nimue has hooked up with a brash young mercenary named Arthur (where have I heard that name before?) and is traversing ancient England looking for what turns out to be a drunken loser of a Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgard, fresh off History Channel’s “Vikings” and looking like he really needs a job that allows him to shower for a change).

Those well versed in Arthurian lore will spot bits and pieces of the traditional tale poking out from the corners of “Cursed.” But the overall effect is chaotic and disjointed. There are so many characters to keep track of. Many disappear for hours on end, and few seem to intersect. Plus, the show keeps shoehorning in more of them with each episode. There are curses and prophecies and chosen ones to deal with. The YA roots linger in the typical rebellious teen characters and some tepid romance between them. At one point some hunky Vikings show up out of the blue. And there’s an awful lot of blood for a property that was once aimed at the teen/tween market. The production employs some ink-wash-looking animated interstitials, which look a bit like Miller’s original illustrations and give the project a bit of flavor—but mostly they cover up for the fact that the writing is choppy and disjointed, jumping character, place and time with little rhythm.

Langford is decent enough as our tough-minded heroine, who seems more suited in some ways to carry Excalibur than Arthur (played, interestingly, by Devon Terrell, who did young Obama in Netflix’s biopic Barry). Unfortunately, the scripts don’t give the characters enough development to make any of them particularly interesting. There are plenty of nods to modern-day sentiment strung throughout the narrative—though it’s never progressive enough to get where it really wants to go. Obviously, by concentrating on the female characters, so often relegated to second banana positions in Arthurian legend, “Cursed” is primed to be a feminist take on historical fiction—but it ends up more standard-issue Hunger Games/Insurgent/girl gets to hold a weapon than anything genuinely radical. There are prominent gay characters and a magical sort of twist on today’s immigrant crisis, which is cool. Plus, this particular England is chockablock with black people, Asians and other round-the-world ethnicities. Representation matters now, more than ever. But even with the fantasy trappings, it’s a little hard to believe that 5th century England was a veritable rainbow nation of diversity.

Not as egregiously off-the-mark as Guy Ritchie’s rank, Ocean’s Eleven-esque take in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Netflix’s “Cursed” is an attractive but convoluted attempt to thread the extremely wide needle eye between “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Game of Thrones.” Unfortunately, though, the show confuses “epic” with “extremely busy.” All the various characters and plot threads kinda, sorta crashes together at the end of the season in a breathlessly action-packed denouement. But even that fails to do much more than set up a second season cliffhanger.

Season 1 of “Cursed” is available now on Netflix.