Netflix has plumbed the depths of teen TV. They have shows about autistic high schoolers and British sexuality and a girl who can explode football players with her brain. But they don’t often venture into full-tilt, high-budget fantasy yet. Their female protagonists rarely wield swords. Enter “Cursed,” the streaming service’s first dalliance with Arthurian legend.
In this retelling, based on Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller’s novel of the same name, plenty of familiar names pop up: Merlin, Arthur, Morgana. But the story hinges on a young Fey (read: fairy) girl named Nimue. It takes quite a few episodes for the terminally serious “Cursed” to gain steam, but once it does, this show offers characters worth sticking around for.
Enter “Cursed,” the streaming service’s first dalliance with Arthurian legend. In this retelling, based on Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller’s novel of the same name, plenty of familiar names pop up: Merlin, Arthur, Morgana. But the story hinges on a young Fey (read: fairy) girl named Nimue. It takes quite a few episodes for the terminally serious “Cursed” to gain steam, but once it does, this show offers characters worth sticking around for.
“You’re quite a serious person,” a Fey ally tells Nimue (Katherine Langford) in the show’s fourth episode.
This is the understatement of the millennium. To be fair, she does have a lot on her mind: Nimue spends most of the show on the run from the Red Paladins, an army of Christians who razed her village and killed her mother as part of their quest to purge the world of heathens. There are plenty of other people who want to capture or kill Nimue, too, because she’s carrying a bloodthirsty sword that can decide who rules the kingdom. And even before all of that, she was struggling with great and powerful magical abilities that ostracized her from her own village.
Still. When Nimue does gain some allies – namely Arthur (Devon Terrell) and his sister Morgana (Shalom Brune-Franklin) – the show hardly brightens. There are fits and starts, mainly centered around Arthur and Nimue’s budding romance, but for those uninterested in magical political intrigue, it can be difficult to stay focused for each episode near-hour runtime with little to break up the doom. Imagine “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1,” but without that scene where Harry and Hermione dance to Nick Cave.
Dourness starts to lift around episode four, with the reintroduction of Pym (Lily Newmark), Nimue’s best friend. Newmark essentially carries the show’s comedy on her back, responding to the bloodshed and insanity around her with the wide-eyed terror of any normal person. Her scenes with Langford are especially delightful but woefully few. Langford, though mostly playing Nimue with the same solemnity she brought to her first lead role in “13 Reasons Why,” is nonetheless enchanting. She is – thus her friends and loved ones are – extremely easy to root for. And in “Cursed,” the heroes are as varied as the villains. An archer with fabulous eyeliner (Daniel Sharman) hunts down the Fey, and a king who speaks in the royal “we” (Sebastian Armesto) will do anything for the throne, but a young nun (Emily Coates) may be Nimue’s greatest adversary. All the while, Merlin (a standout Gustaf Skarsgård) is just out for his own self-interest.
This variety, along with enough decapitation and limb-slicing scenes to make this a toned-down cousin to “Game of Thrones,” will capture viewers’ attention through to episode ten. And for any young female viewers alienated by HBO’s greatest moneymaker, this is a solid, fairly diverse alternative. (This is not the sort of fantasy land where black people magically don’t exist.)
The show’s slavish devotion to genre hallmarks borders on hokey at times, but novelist Wheeler, who also co-runs the show with Miller, is likewise adept at writing teleplays. We’re all a little too used to seeing the fate of the world hinge on Teen Girl Chosen Ones who never seem to laugh – but “Cursed” gives us one genuinely worth caring about. [B]