Action films have never gone out of style. But until recently, their ubiquity hadn’t quite made the crossover into television. While the reason is likely budgetary — action sequences, with their fight choreographers, stuntmen, special effects, and bloated insurance bills, are expensive — well-done action set pieces also take a long time to make. Elaborate fight scenes can take weeks to film, and television productions just don’t have that kind of time.
In the age of Prestige TV, the rules are different. Budgets are ballooning as the public’s appetite for content grows more and more ravenous. Is it finally time for blockbuster-level action on television? This fall sees a spate of new shows that take a different approach to the action genre. Into the Badlands, a dystopian-future kung fu drama debuting November 15 on AMC, leans on a martial arts coordinator (Huan-Chiu Ku) for high-flying acrobatics; Edge, an Amazon pilot, brings Lethal Weapon-style gunfights to the Reconstruction-era Wild West; and TNT’s Agent X, which debuts Sunday, clumsily takes style cues from James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Bruce Wayne. None of them are particularly compelling from a narrative perspective, comprised of a cornucopia of aging tropes that really just serve as a vehicle for ass-kicking. But is it possible for the ass-kicking to do more than just satisfy our animalistic urges for violence? Can it build a character? Help tell a story?
Jeff Hephner as the titular character in TNT’s ‘Agent X’
In Edge, the first “action” we see is quite one-sided; a gang of Union soldiers shows up to a rural homestead in hopes of retrieving a valuable object. They shoot a dog and further maim a crippled man before lynching him and burning down his house. As opening scenes go, it’s pretty pivotal to the narrative, introducing the villains, revealing the depths of their villainy as well as their object of desire. But it’s the short gunfight, in which the victim manages to get a lone shot off, that allows the plot to advance. The accurate shot is only deflected by a flask in the pocket of a soldier named Little Bill (Beau Knapp) — when we see the punctured flask amongst the possessions of our protagonist, Josiah Hedges (Max Martini), we understand it to be the clue that led him to the town of Seward, where the bulk of the pilot episode is set, to avenge his brother (the lynched crippled man).
When Hedges (dubbed “Mr. Edge” by Benny, the one-armed black servant at the inn) arrives in Seward to find the town gathered around the gallows for a hanging, he’s almost immediately drawn upon by a sheriff’s deputy, and given a chance to prove just how formidable he is as a fighter. He disarms the deputy, somersaulting and simultaneously firing a rifle shot into his belly, then shoots out the hanging rope. In a few short seconds, we learn of his marksmanship, hand-to-hand skills, and his reluctance to harm innocents (the somersault/shot move sent the bullet through the deputy’s belly and into the sky, with no chance to harm innocent bystanders).
Mr. Edge does some detective work in trying to find Little Bill, but it’s through the action sequences that we really learn what kind of man he is. He sets Rube Goldberg machine booby traps, and uses hi-tech weapons to help him take on a large number of assailants (the first-person POV of the Howitzer machine gun feels very Doom-like, and looks awesome). When he sees an injured horse flailing on the ground, he reluctantly shoots it to put it out of its misery. When he sees a dying Benny strung up on a building that’s about to burn, he shows him this same “mercy.” It’s a calculated ploy to humanize him, and immediately called out by another character — a lady Pinkerton agent who asks him about how those murders compare: “Does that feel any different to you?”
Daniel Wu as Sunny in AMC’s “Into the Badlands.”
By contrast, Sunny (Daniel Wu), the dual-sword-wielding protagonist of Into the Badlands, tells us more about himself with the violence he doesn’t commit. We learn of his arrogance when he leaves his sword behind to fight the gang of nomads in the first scene (it’s not to spare their lives, which he takes anyway), and we learn the limits of his loyalty when he refuses his baron’s (Marton Csokas) order to execute the baron’s doctor and his wife (who also happen to be his lover Veil’s (Madeleine Mantock) adoptive parents).
But moreso than in Edge or Agent X, the action is the main character of Badlands; fight sequences are elegantly choreographed, props within scenes become weapons (bottles, shards of glass, metal pipes), and the death toll is in the double digits in each of the first two episodes. The barons (essentially feudal lords) care little for the lives of their subjects, and the way with which they dispatch an unending stream of bodies for Sunny to cut down shows exactly how little they think of them. One baron, “The Widow,” uses her young female vassal to recruit nomad leaders to her cause, offering her up to them if they can defeat her in combat, with the understanding that they must join her if they lose. The quickness with which she allows such a bet to be may hint at the confidence she holds in her subject, but the nature of the agreement belies the fact that she is a mere commodity, if a very valuable one.
If the fight sequences in Badlands are the high-water mark, then Agent X takes the lowest common denominator approach to its action scenes. They require such extreme suspension of belief that it’s hard to develop any emotional attachment to any of the characters; John Case feels more like Michael Scarn than Jason Bourne. The premise — in which the vice president (Sharon Stone) conscripts a secret agent to commit extrajudicial violence that is supposed to be in the best interests of the US — is intended to be patriotic, but the stereotyped Russian and Arabic villains expose its jingoistic roots. Attention to detail is minimal, with tired genre tropes standing in for any actual character development. The action doesn’t do much to serve the story or the characters, as Case seems completely unable to be stealth, prefers absurd no-look, long-distance, one-shot pistol kills to hand-to-hand combat, and appears to have the most backwards moral code ever. In regards to the Arab terrorist, he laughably says, “This guy’s a monster, you don’t catch him, you kill him” — but he lets the hot Russian babe go free when she asks nicely, despite the fact that she’s already murdered several American agents. It’s as if he was trained by Jack Bauer. But Agent X will also likely be the most successful of the three, considering the way it panders to the same conservative base that keeps shows like Blue Bloods on the air.
Each of the three shows takes a different approach to action and the violence that goes with it. If nothing else, taken together, they prove that there’s room for big-budget action on television, while also highlighting the skills (or lack thereof) of the people at the helm of these productions. And with fall TV season schedules exploding at an unprecedented rate (thanks to the seemingly unlimited bandwidth of the streaming services), one thing is for sure: there’s room for some action.