It’s not easy to create a new story riffing on the oft-told legend of King Arthur and Excalibur. Who should you target? General audiences that are broadly familiar with the legend, or the diehard fans of Arthurian lore that know every single character and event? Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler’s new show clearly wants to target the latter. Cursed pitches itself as a dramatic retelling of the stories, but with a female protagonist called Nimue (Katherine Langford), a Fey girl destined to become the Lady of the Lake.
The production follows this powerful idea to a T: full of foreboding music, beautiful cinematography mimicking The Lord of the Rings, and a willingness to showcase violence à la Game of Thrones. The opening sequence is a work of art. It’s a pity, then, that all this effort is let down by the plot, pacing, and dialogue.
From the beginning, Cursed moves at breakneck speed to the detriment of viewers. In the first episode, Nimue is introduced as an outcast, meets Arthur (Devon Terrell) in a rom-com moment, and then loses her town to religious cult the Red Paladins and a mysterious Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharman). Oh yes, and we also learn about Merlin the magician’s (Gustaf Skarsgård) decaying relationship with King Uther Pendragon (Sebastian Armesto). This, squashed into 53-minutes, would be fine if we were dealing with the noble knights and mages we’re all familiar with.
However, Cursed is a reimagining, so the rules have changed. Merlin is a mean drunk and Arthur is a mercenary. It’s hence necessary to spend some time explaining the new rules and world that Cursed takes part in, but Cursed doesn’t bother. We’re never told the exact details of Nimue’s powers, how Excalibur (or ‘The Sword of Power’) works, or even the ideal state of the world prior to the current war. The effect is a series that plays like it’s enjoying a third or fourth season, content that everything has been explained earlier… but that isn’t the case.
As the series progresses, more and more characters familiar to Arthurian lore, such as the Green Knight (Matt Stokoe) and Morgana (Shalom Brune-Franklin), are swiftly brought into the story, and just as quickly pushed aside or killed. Numerous interweaving stories are haphazardly drawn together, leaving huge plot holes unplugged. There’s more than one time where an important conversation or fight is about to reach its climax, only for the scene to suddenly end and be explained later in a throwaway line.
Cursed feels like it’s missing half of its screenplay, with the rest meant to be filled in with assumptions from the audience. It’s possible this is what the original source material, a graphic novel by showrunner Tom Wheeler and the great Frank Miller (Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns), is supposed to do. If the novel is supposed to act as a guide, then, this series should’ve been promoted as a companion piece to the novel instead of as a standalone story. Since Wheeler himself wrote half the episodes of the first season, I doubt the dialogue is better in the book.
The characters speak with an inconsistent mix of formal and informal language, trying to say a lot with little. There are many scenes where actors have to go from zero to a hundred on an emotional scale with no discernible motivation. It results in is a slew of generic platitudes with no bite. Cursed tries to substitute some of the dialogue in earlier episodes with lingering shots on character’s faces as they witness horrors, but it’s not enough. Points have to be given to the diverse ensemble cast, though, led by Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why), Devon Terrell, and Gustaf Skarsgård, for trying their best. If one watches scenes without dialogue and just reaction shots, this show almost seems good. Almost.
Throughout its 10 episodes, Cursed provides more frustrating questions than concrete answers. For example, the threat to the Fey world (which is what Nimue is ostensibly trying to protect) is illustrated in dramatic speeches about violent extinction. The death of the Fey is seen as the worst thing in the world but we’re never given a proper explanation as to why we should be up in arms or quaking in fear. We aren’t given the details of the stakes here, or even what we’re supposed to be fighting for (besides a generic “for people not to die!”) A lot of people die, too easily, over the course of this season!
The thing that rankles the most is that Cursed suffers most from being incredibly self-important. It demands your full attention just like the sword in the story does, with a number of foreboding moments and overdramatic scenes yelling ‘I’m important, pay attention to me!’ However, when viewed in that way, all it does is illuminate its problems.
In the end, Cursed tries to target fans of Arthurian lore by giving them a new twist on an old story. However, it fails to tell its new story well. It ends up telling half a proper story, with the other half lost, either through editing or poor pacing. There are beautiful sets, staging, and VFX, but this doesn’t constitute the birth of a new legend.
Even the finale doesn’t provide a proper send-off, as Cursed doesn’t seem to know what to say on the idea of another season. All the characters, except Nimue, seem to have bigger plans that have been set in motion, but our protagonist herself seems to have reached the end of her journey. According to the graphic novel, of course, that isn’t the case. This ends the season on yet another dud note. Cursed just doesn’t seem to care about properly ending whatever they’ve started.
USA | 2020 | 554 MINUTES • 10 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writers: Tom Wheeler, Janet Lin, Rachel Shukert, Leila Gerstein, William Wheeler & Robbie Thompson (based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller & Tom Wheeler).
directors: Zetna Fuentes, Daniel Nettheim, Jon East & Sarah O’Gorman.
starring: Katherine Langford, Devon Terrell, Gustaf Skarsgård, Daniel Sharman, Lily Newmark, Peter Mullan, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Bella Dayne & Matt Stokoe.