“The Bastard Executioner” has killer potential, despite its slow start

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Those still saddened by the end of Kurt Sutter’s outlaw biker drama, “Sons of Anarchy,” didn’t have to wait too long for his return to television, which sees him trade guns and Harleys for swords and horses in the new FX series, “The Bastard Executioner,” debuting September 15th with a special two-hour premiere. But while the show represents a radical change of setting compared to Sutter’s last outing, it carries many of the same themes – particularly loyalty, revenge and redemption – which will make it feel very familiar to fans of “Sons of Anarchy,” provided they’re willing to stick around past the first hour.

Set in the early 14th century, “The Bastard Executioner” tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (newcomer Lee Jones), a former knight in King Edward I’s army who makes a vow to lay down his sword when he receives a divine message beseeching him to lead a peaceful life. But when his idyllic world is shattered by a cruel English lord, Wilkin is forced to pick up his sword once again, although this time under the guise of a journeyman executioner, in order to exact his revenge amid the backdrop of a political rebellion in Northern Wales.

It’s not exactly the most original story, but Sutter’s writing elevates the material beyond the typical medieval tale, wasting no time in shaking up the status quo with shocking deaths, secrets and betrayals that will undoubtedly continue to stack up as the season progresses. Though “The Bastard Executioner” operates more like historical fiction than fantasy (with a few tweaks, it could easily pass as “Braveheart: The TV Series”), there are hints of supernatural elements (black magic, divine intervention, etc.) that suggest there’s more to the show’s mythology than Sutter is initially letting on.

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The show’s visual aesthetic leaves a lot to be desired (it lacks the scope of “Game of Thrones,” clearly due to the confines of a much smaller budget, and has this annoying quirk of fading to black and white before each commercial break), but the acting is really solid for the most part. Australian stage actor Lee Jones quickly grows into his role as the title character over the course of the first three episodes, while Stephen Moyer surprises in a standout turn as Milus Corbett, the cunning right-hand man to the English lord who rules over Wilkins’ shire, especially after his lifeless, seven-year stint on “True Blood.”

As expected, the series also features a number of “Sons of Anarchy” alumni behind the scenes (like executive producer Paris Barclay, who directed the first three episodes) and in front of the camera, including Katey Sagal as Annora of the Alders, a mystical healer who serves as a counselor to Wilkins on his journey; Timothy V. Murphy as Irish warrior-turned-priest Father Ruskin; and even Sutter himself as Annora’s disfigured but deadly protector, known only as The Dark Mute.

That’s just a sampling of the many characters introduced throughout the series’ two-hour premiere, and it’s a major reason why the show takes so long to find its footing. It’s not quite as complex as “Game of Thrones,” but there’s still a fair share of figuring out who’s who and how they fit into the bigger picture, even if some don’t even make it out of the second episode alive. The first two episodes are admittedly a bit slow and occasionally frustrating, and although it will likely test some viewers’ patience, it’s a necessary evil that helps lay the groundwork for Sutter’s larger world. The good news is that if you can make it all the way through the premiere, “The Bastard Executioner” finally starts to display its potential as a worthy successor to “Sons of Anarchy.”

  

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