The new Netflix series Cursed is just one of Hollywood’s many attempts to accomplish what has never worked to date – make Arthurian legend appealing to the mass public. After the failure of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur movie, Cursed follows a different take on the mythos.
This time the focus is on Nimue, the Lady of the Lake as she is to be called. Played with equal parts charm and ferocity by 13 Reasons Why lead Katherine Langford, in a cast of talented actors, Langford makes it apparent in scene after scene why she is the nucleus of this series.
Netflix’s second try at medieval fantasy after the success of The Witcher is unfortunately quite weak. In the series, sorceress Nimue sets on a quest to fulfil her mother’s dying wish to deliver a sword to Merlin, when her people are attacked by people who look down upon their magic.
Like the Witcher before it, it’s an uneven start, but where that series was able to make up for it with strong fight scenes and solid lead actors, Cursed is, well cursed, by the absence of any strong actors in the entire ensemble. Sure, there is Langford, doing her absolute best with material that is sorely missing both depth and ingenuity. But even her performance can’t mask the gargantuan problems in the script.
The other saving grace of the show is Vikings actor Gustaf Skarsgard who is as enigmatic here as he is in every role. Nonetheless, the series finds a way to make his performance unpleasant. His magic-less Merlin is such a big let-down that despite the actor’s engaging turn, his character still suffers from being a tad bit mundane.
Then there’s Arthur. Played by Devon Terrell, Cursed’s take on Arthur is to show his meagre origins as a rogue rather than a king, a decision that is also a misfire by the creative time given how dull this character is.
A big problem for the fantasy drama is that it just doesn’t bring anything new to the table, both in terms of genre and with the story it is telling. So all of its changes to the lore, feel cheap. Having no familiarity with the Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler graphic novel on which this is based, I cannot fathom if many of these creative changes to spice up the Arthurian legend come from the novel or the showrunners.
However, in nearly all of these cases, the result is dismaying. Nimue’s magic powers are unspecified and used as a deus ex machina to resolve problems from time to time, without much being explained about them. The secondary characters are all underdeveloped and feel shoehorned as if the show is half-heartedly attempting to have a sprawling Game Of Thrones level universe.
Among Cursed’s many issues are that it has mistaken entertainment for gritty cynicism and erroneously assumed that death and destruction will instantly make its characters alluring. This is more prevalent through a child villain and an unbelievably cringe-worthy scene early on in the season, where we are meant to cower in fear of a twelve-year-old girl who is “evil”.
It is times like these when the show is attempting to earnestly deliver its more ludicrous storylines that Cursed exposes just how laughably bad it is. The side plots and arcs (if you can even call them that) are a huge waste of time, with very little in the way of pay-off in terms of character development or sometimes even story progression. While the show isn’t a total mess like The Witcher, it does contain some pretty awful writing across the board.
Netflix has clearly spared no expense, and that is evident from all the VFX heavy scenes in the show. Yet with nothing to back that up, Cursed remains a slog to sit through from start to end. For all of the violence, the boorish Red Paladins—a militia aligned with the Church to expel Nimue’s kind – are one-dimensional boring villains with neither it nor spectacle to make their appearances electrifying.
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Those who live and breathe all things King Arthur, or perhaps have learned of it through shows like BBC’s Merlin, may find things to enjoy about this darker take on the origin story of Arthur. However, there isn’t enough going on in the ten episodes of the first season to justify telling this story yet.