'Cursed': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Much better when it focuses on its fresh heroines than on its big-name male characters.
7/17/2020

Netflix's Arthurian legend prequel features '13 Reasons Why' star Katherine Langford as the future Lady of the Lake.

With its legion of magic practitioners, forests full of mystical creatures and warrior clans battling for supremacy, Netflix's Cursed is the latest potential TV franchise sure to face Game of Thrones comparisons. But leaving aside whether or not it's the next Game of Thrones, is it even the next Witcher?

The drama, based upon the graphic novel by Frank Miller and TV showrunner Tom Wheeler, lacks the inspired fits of lunacy that made Witcher watchable. That is to say there's no nudity and nobody is transformed into an eel. It also, however, lacks the long stretches of utter amateurism that sometimes made Witcher unwatchable. It's an OK show with the raw materials to have been much better given just a bit more commitment to its premise.

Cursed is designed as a prequel to the familiar and oft-told saga of King Arthur — the next Game of Thrones before there was a Game of Thrones — introducing us to the sword-bestowing Lady of the Lake when she was still just a magically gifted Fay maiden named Nimue (Katherine Langford). Religious forces, led by Carden (Peter Mullan) and his red paladins, are going through the land wiping out supernatural beings, spurred by the mysterious and lethal Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharman). It all threatens the reign of King Uther Pendragon (Sebastian Armesto), whose position of power has been jeopardized since court magician Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgard) stopped being able to do magic.

Tragedy forces Nimue to go on the run, lugging the bulky Sword of the First King with her. It will eventually become hugely important, as will her new traveling companion, a hunky mercenary named Arthur (Devon Terrell).

Yes, that Merlin. Yes, that Arthur. Actually, yes that Nimue, if your readings of Arthurian lore goes back to medieval roots.

The set-up here is for a Mists of Avalon-style full-fledged revision of Arthurian legend, but despite each male character being duller than the one before, their insecurities are given disproportionate time in a show that, by rights, probably doesn't need them at all. This is also, it should be noted, in keeping with most conventional versions of the Arthurian legend, driven primarily by men making dumb decisions determined by their genitals. Here, Nimue at least gets to call the men on their macho BS.

The need to tie it all in to the Arthurian legend and its familiar characters feels desperate and generally speaks to a lack of confidence in the story that's actually being told. Over these 10 episodes, there are at least five scenes in which a character introduced with one name either voluntarily or under duress reveals their actual identity as somebody from the Arthurian A-list, and each time it happens is goofier than the time before. That Nimue never just comes out and says, "Henceforth, you can call me the Lady of the Lake!" is the only minuscule piece of restraint. But what this does is give the strong impression that Nimue's story is only important in terms of how it connects to a male-driven narrative you already know, rather than having its own beginning-middle-end importance.

There are writers on the production team, people like Rachel Shukert (The Baby-Sitters Club) and Leila Gerstein (The Handmaid's Tale), who I somehow assume were trying to keep Nimue's story at the forefront — and others who I fear were more like, "Let's drop another Easter egg for the Arthur fanboys." I wish the first group had been more frequently victorious or maybe just that this version of Arthur — bland but pretty — and several other key familiar characters were better. Only Merlin, played with typically off-kilter strangeness by Vikings veteran Skarsgard, is compelling from the "Sword and the Stone's Greatest Hits" version of the story.

And Langford, so talented she made Netflix's 13 Reasons Why watchable for a season, is easily able to carry this drama, making me annoyed any time a man took away her sword, literally or figuratively. She makes Nimue vulnerable and uncertain, but fills the character with growing determination as things progress. If she doesn't always look instantly confident swinging the mammoth, glowing sword, that's completely in keeping with the girl-on-the-cusp-of-womanhood side of things — a use of female adolescence as metaphor that works much better than the times Cursed thinks that it's a critique of religious fundamentalism, an arc that badly underserves the reliable Mullan.

Religious hypocrisies are better captured as Nimue briefly finds herself in a nunnery, where she encounters a solidly passionate Shalom Brune-Franklin as future ally Sister Igraine and a delightfully frightful Emily Coates as future nemesis Sister Iris. When I think of the screen time wasted on a limp Nimue/Arthur flirtation instead of these characters or the great Polly Walker as the kingdom's Queen Mum, it makes me sad. That's without even getting to probably my favorite character in the series, Nimue's awkward and hilarious friend Pym, played by a scene-stealing Lily Newmark in one of those great supporting performances that leaves no moment, with or without dialogue, wasted.

The lapses in focus cause Cursed to waver in pacing as well. Certain episodes rush ahead with big action set-pieces — CG blood flows freely, a reminder of Frank Miller's pedigree — clever one-liners and hints of real emotion, and then other episodes feel like they're long stretches of characters leaning against walls waiting for stuff to happen. The same inconsistency is visible in the production values: We go back and forth between stunning location-shot exteriors and shoddy soundstages, where one character might look like they spent hours in a makeup chair in the hands of a careful artisan and the next like they fell face-first into a bowl of oatmeal. Was the budget cut or just questionably distributed?

I never was able to fully give myself over to Cursed, but I never really got bored and I think there's a better show laying in wait for a second season. More Pym, please!

Stars: Katherine Langford, Devon Terrell, Gustaf Skarsgård, Daniel Sharman, Sebastian Armesto, Matt Stokoe, Lily Newmark, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Emily Coates, Billy Jenkins, Bella Dayne, Peter Mullan

Created By: Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller

Premieres Friday, July 17 on Netflix.