Listen, with Game of Thrones off the air, we’re due for the next big fantasy adaptation. I’ve talked about this before; we’ve got a new Lord of the Rings series, a Wheel of Time series, the Kingkiller Chronicle, The Witcher, all of these highly-anticipated adaptations of popular sci-fi properties, looking to fill the same market that Game of Thrones proved exists.
But some networks didn’t even want to wait for Game of Thrones to end – case in point, FX’s 2015 attempt to create a dark, gritty, medeival epic about political scheming during a period of civil war and rebellion.
Most of the show’s marketing hinged on the fact that it was produced by Sons of Anarchy showrunner, Kurt Sutter. In fact, this was his first project since the end of Sons of Anarchy, which added a fair amount of hype to the show.
Technically, the show isn’t fantasy, it’s historical fiction, telling a story of the aristocracy and a rebellion of peasants in 14th century Wales. There is however, one character who is a witch – it’s not entirely clear if she really has magic powers or is closer to the 14th century understanding of witchcraft, like someone who dabbles in natural medicines the church did not approve of.
Now, I might say that the similarity was incidental, but it just feels so… abundant, that it’s hard to say that this was a coincidence. The show’s dark, gritty, tone, or the show’s desire to focus on inter-character politics rather than traditional high fantasy elements, and fact that the word Bastard is in the title, like Game of Thrones‘ Jon Snow, is very evocative of Game of Thrones. I’d excuse the fact that both main characters are bastards if seemingly every character on Game of Thrones didn’t address Jon as “Bastard.”
And while I’m on that, it’s also just so… willfully edgey. Like they knew that bastards and executions were a part of Game of Thrones and thought that it’d be neat if they put those two things together. It was as if they knew that Thrones had a dark tone, and assumed that that was the main thing that made it successful, which is probably the wrong takeaway.
The critical response wasn’t exactly great. Kyle Fowle from the AV Club wrote about the first episode: “The pilot is a mess of varying tones, at once delightfully campy and violent while also unbearably self-serious.” Matt Rousch from TV Insider wrote: “The Bastard Executioner is at first blow an unsatisfying wallow in extreme violence leavened with corny platitudes, enacted by characters who, with the exception of Moyer’s steely-eyed menace, aren’t all that memorable.” (Also, funny side note, while I was looking for quotes from contemporary reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, I’d find link for a review that was written around the time of the show, and most of the reviews had disappeared, presumably because this show wasn’t relevant enough.)
In summary, the general critical consensus seems to indicate that the show was adequate, but not of a high enough quality to stand out or build an audience. The ratings dropped with every episode. And unsurprisingly, the show was cancelled one day after its last episode.
The day the show was cancelled, Kurt Sutter made quite the statement:
“I don’t write in a vacuum. I’m not the guy sitting in my ivory tower spitting shit out not caring if anyone is watching. I like an audience. I don’t want to write something that nobody’s fucking watching. And yes, some of that is ego. But some of it is just, [if no one’s watching] then I’m not necessarily doing my job.”
I can’t decide if Sutter’s response is overly cocky or just surprisingly honest. Out of all entertainment mediums, television writing is perhaps the most reliant on and flexible to audience response. TV shows can get cancelled almost immediately if the response isn’t enough. I suppose it’s the television equivalent of “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If no one watched The Bastard Executioner, does it still end up feeling derivative?
Also, I don’t have anything substantial to say about this but… This show also has Ed Sheeran? (This was before his Game of Thrones cameo.)
I think what I mean to suggest by looking back at this show, is just to remind us of the derivative nature of media trends. Over the next few years, you’ll hear many variations of the phrase “It’s like Game of Thrones” tossed around. Every network is seeking to top its success, including HBO with their plethora of prequels.
If there’s anything to be learned from the failure of The Bastard Executioner, one might think its that your project should have something to set it apart from the property it resembles, let alone something to make it engaging. You can’t properly capitalize on a media trend if the media you create lacks the same spark which started the trend in the first place.