On paper, Cursed sounds like it should work, even given the challenges of reimagining something as familiar as the legends of King Arthur.
On paper, the idea of refocusing the fantastic legendary stories through the perspective of a young female character, Nimue, was exciting. Especially a character that has been given short shrift in previous iterations.
In practice, not so much.
Netflix's supernatural youth series Cursed, available to stream now, is adapted from the book by Tom Wheeler with illustrations by Frank Miller, and it's as flat as the pages from which it sprung. Wheeler and Miller created the TV series, too.
Nimue (Katherine Langford) is "fey" – this universe's term for magical people – but even among her kind she's ostracised and shunned for being too powerful and attuned with "The Hidden", the elemental spirits of nature.
Throughout the country, a group of Christian fundamentalists called the Red Paladins, led by crusader Father Carden (Peter Mullen), is raiding fey communities, burning some on the cross, killing the rest. Carden's speechifying about God and the unworthy and cleansing is very Handmaid's Tale-lite.
When Nimue's village is targeted, her mother's dying wish is for her to deliver the Sword of Power to Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgard), the once-powerful sorcerer barely more than a drunken wastrel in the service of King Uther Pendragon (Sebastain Armesto).
Helping her is a mercenary warrior named Arthur (Devon Terrell) and his sister Morgana (Shalom Brune-Franklin), who has been helping ferret persecuted feys to a safe haven.
If you're even remotely aware of the King Arthur stories, which have been in circulation for more than a millennium, told by writers from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory and Mark Twain, and in screen adaptations as varied as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure to Sean Connery's First Knight, you know the general beats.
There's a man destined to be king (Arthur), a wise wizard (Merlin), a quest (the holy grail), a sword (Excalibur), some knights (of the Round Table) and a pair of lovers (Lancelot and Guinevere).
Depending on the version, Nimue is either a sorcerer and/or Lady of the Lake, the latter of whom is best known for giving Excalibur to Merlin to give to Arthur. She is also sometimes the adopted mother of a young Lancelot.
Considering the Arthurian legends have been told for so many years, it's surprising there are even that many agreed upon core tenets around that character.
In most of the stories, the female characters are peripheral figures whose presence is only necessary for the male characters' hero's journey, or as antagonists, such as Morgana/Morgan Le Fay often is.
A 2004 movie, King Arthur, recast Guinevere (Keira Knightley) as a survivor-turned-warrior, the 1998 Merlin miniseries gave more shades to Nimue (Isabella Rossellini) and the 2008 65-episode British series Merlin expanded Morgana and Guinevere's characterisations, but on the whole, women didn't steer their own stories.
Which is why Cursed sounds so enticing as a concept – the idea that the Sword of Power would choose a woman, Nimue, to be the destined one.
Then it's a real shame all that promise was wasted with such clunky execution.
For a series that is supposed to set up this powerful female hero, it is intent on letting things — and generally, really awful things — happen to her, instead of letting her drive her own narrative.
It's actually baffling how much jeopardy Cursed creates in even just the first four episodes, ceaselessly throwing terrible people and situations at Nimue, supposedly to build up her character and desire for justice.
If this was a film, that groundwork would have been laid in the first act over 20 minutes, but four hours of watching her be a punching bag is exhausting, and not an inducement to stick around for the next six.
It also creates a character that is to be pitied, rather than someone you can relate to or a hero you can root for, which makes it all unnecessarily grim and gory with no let-up. Even its many flashbacks to Nimue's childhood are just more instances where she's bullied or in danger.
No wonder Langford looks like she would rather be anywhere else.
The production values also look cheap, with different medieval villages, fortresses and keeps indistinguishable from each other (or a discarded set from Xena) while the thinking behind the costuming seems to be "throw more dirt at it".
The choreography of fight scenes is almost laughable, especially in sequences with multiple people — it's as if those giving chase are running in slow motion while those running away move at normal speed.
To the credit of Terrell, Brune-Franklin and Skarsgard, at least it looks like they're trying, and Terrell has a strong presence.
While Cursed is an American production, it had the odd quirk of starring three Western Australian actors, two of them as leads, in Langford, Terrell and Brune-Franklin.
This could have been a great showcase for young Australian talent, and it could have delivered a fresh take on an old legend.
Instead, it was all squandered. What a waste.
Cursed is streaming on Netflix now.