Typically, one should never ever judge a tv show based upon its opening credits, but when watching the intro of Cursed, Netflix subscribers may assume it’s an off-shoot of another teenager heroine series, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Therein lies one of the biggest struggles the streaming service confronted with its venture into Arthurian legend starring 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford: The tone of the series speaks to a Gen Z and Millennial audience that’s perpetually starving for gritty, female “chosen one” adventures. It’s an audience committed to Buffy, Sabrina, Katniss Everdeen, and Tris, but, I would argue, has little emotional connection to King Arthur, the Knights of the Roundtable, and all of the different guys that wield swords in those tales.
When done well, Arthurian stories have actually found a location in all genres, in between the animated The Sword in the Stone, the comedic musical gem Spamalot, and the BBC’s beloved coming-of-age saga Merlin. By focusing this fresh story on the ever-mysterious Lady of the Lake, Cursed could have been the next great female-centric fantasy adventure, including something fresh to a vast magical canon. That is, if it didn’t rely so greatly on poorly executed winks and nudges to the original mythos.
Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler’s Cursed, based upon the pair’s original book, follows Nimue (Langford), a young Fey sorceress, on a tragic mission of destiny. After her entire tribe is completely killed by the Red Paladins (basically just the Faith Militant from Game of Thrones), she is sent out to conserve her people by providing a precious sword to the notorious Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård). (Yes, the audience most likely knows the sword is Excalibur, however they’re just going to call it “The Sword of Power” the entire time for a bit of mystique.).
Regrettably, much of the enjoyment in the very first season– specifically a major identity expose in the ending– counts on a familiarity with the lore in the audience. As one such viewer, I was certainly fascinated by Nimue’s journey, however was disappointed by much of the main players. King Uther (Sebastian Armesto) and Nimue’s “cutthroat” accomplice, Arthur (Devon Terrell), are all a little dull and underdeveloped throughout the season. Still, while this is far from Skarsgård’s best performance, he’s able to instill much-needed energy into somewhat trite material and bring a bit more depth to the famous wizard than you may have seen before.
We’re meant to be amused by the twists to the mythos– instead of a great prospective king, Arthur is just an attractive rogue, grasping at straws to gain honor. Merlin is at his lowest, a drunken disgrace, and, maybe, even a traitor. However, with the show’s mostly one-dimensional performances and absence of nuance, if I were unfamiliar with these characters I believe I would have been absolutely, mind-numbingly bored.
Possibly this is an egregious overgeneralization. Maybe I’m offbase and the majority of Cursed‘s viewers will be amazed by medieval lore or at least have dads like mine who discuss Lancelot’s trysts as if they were historical reality akin to his comprehensive knowledge on World War II and the Battle of Normandy. In either case, Cursed is messy. The show feels overproduced– the colors too bright, the makeup and gruesome effects not quite best. The pacing is clunky at best– at random points throughout the season, there are several comic-like illustrated shifts between scenes that seem like a random place holder for lack of a much better way to progress to the next point.
These elements suggest a level of camp similar, coincidentally, to Merlin, but with material that takes itself even more seriously. Nimue is repeatedly abused by her own tribe (making it somewhat tough as a viewer to care about avenging them), then victimized some more by random scavengers and hunted by the grotesque Paladins. Even with tried comedic levity in scenes between the unlucky King Uther and inebriated Merlin, the series is mainly weighed down in woe.
All this to say, Cursed has some highlights with its characters, like the sweet and amusing Pym (Lily Newmark) and the sapphic romance between Igrain (Shalom Brune-Franklin) and a fellow nun– though that relationship eventually falls into a harmful trope the story could have done without. Still, Cursed’s greatest weakness is that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, even beyond mythology. Netflix’s most current adaptation is most likely doomed to be forgotten much quicker than the characters it sought to magnify.