If there’s a hierarchy of genres, in terms of which are allowed to receive some sort of critical accolade—especially in the form of a Primetime Emmy Award—then it’s safe to say that “martial arts” would have to occupy a spot at the very bottom of the totem pole. It’s difficult to imagine how transcendent a show involving hand-to-hand combat would have to be in order to be recognized for the sort of visual splendor that would garner an award in almost any drama or comedy. Even other “genre fare” gets more respect—recent years have been increasingly kind to science fiction, fantasy and even horror. But kung fu? Good luck getting a nomination for that, or even getting it on the air in the first place.
Look no further than AMC’s Into the Badlands. What we have here, as the show approaches the midpoint of its second season, is the most stylish, sumptuously designed TV show on cable today, but it’s received next to no critical attention for the aspects where it excels the most. From production design, to costuming, to choreography and stunts, the second season of Into the Badlands has already surpassed its first, bringing its audience a mythology-rich tribute to classic Hong Kong action cinema and wuxia films that is the closest thing we’ve ever seen on TV to a serialized version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
I’m not here to make a case for the plot or storyline of Into the Badlands. It paints in broad, pulpy strokes, with faction vs. faction scheming and power plays that draw clear inspiration from the dueling houses in Game of Thrones. It lifts the tropes of classic Shaolin Temple films, full of students studying secret techniques and harnessing ancient, mystical forces to avenge slain family members. It gives us a cast of characters whose loyalties and rationalizations are in a constant, soap-operatic flux. Its morals are on the simple side. This isn’t a campaign to score the show a nomination for its writing.
But its visuals? Its costumes? And my god, its action sequences? There isn’t a show with better choreographed action and fight scenes on TV today. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s EVER been a show with better fight scenes on TV. Into the Badlands is delivering crackling, hyperkinetic, bloody sequences of flying fists, acrobatics and swordplay on a weekly basis that you typically can’t find outside of any given year’s top few Hong Kong action movies or wuxia epics. American audiences, starved of truly inspired action choreography on both the small and large screen, should consider Into the Badlands a gift from the heavens. Every cinephile who lavishes praise on the long takes and choreography of The Raid, or John Wick films? This is the TV show they need to be watching. Annoyed by the constant shaky-cam and schizophrenic cuts that have been canonized online by the likes of Liam Neeson jumping a fence? Into the Badlands is the panacea to that uninspired action malaise, because they went out and cast people who could actually physically perform. Imagine that!
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a fight scene from the show’s very first episode.
And here’s another one with incredible choreography and expressionistic lighting/color, which looks like it came out of a movie with a $200 million budget.
And, to drive the point home—and note that the series provides the best stunt roles and choreography on TV for women as well—here’s an action scene from the Season Two opener, starring Into the Badlands’ best character, The Widow (Emily Beecham).
I ask you: On what other TV series airing right now can you see a female character pull off that kind of fight choreography? Or these kinds of stunts, with such visual panache? There’s nothing on this level in Jessica Jones or Agents of SHIELD, or in Marvel’s poorly received Iron Fist, a show that was literally supposed to be about a martial arts master. Game of Thrones has featured huge scale in its battles, but the choreography and stuntwork of individual fights in Into the Badlands is far more detailed and vibrant, making even The Mountain vs. The Viper look simplistic by comparison. Aren’t Emmy Awards supposed to recognize the highest degrees of difficulty and most outstanding technical accomplishments on TV, rather than simply reward the shows with the highest viewership? If so, how did the likes of Rush Hour, Gotham and The Blacklist manage to get nominations for Outstanding Stunt Coordination, while Into the Badlands got absolutely nothing? Of the other candidates for last year’s award, only Marvel’s Daredevil and Game of Thrones should be in the same conversation.
A cursory glance at the various Creative Arts Emmy categories reveals numerous places to recognize Into the Badlands. There’s the production design category, which could recognize a show far more committed to a full-world visual transformation than Constantine, True Blood or American Horror Story, all nominated in the last few years. There’s the costuming award for period/fantasy series, which could recognize Into the Badlands for the completely unique, gorgeous head-to-toe outfits that populate every corner of its world, giving the show a fashion sense totally unlike anything else on TV. But most undeniably, there’s the stunt coordination category, which can only omit Into the Badlands if voters simply didn’t bother to watch the show. Which is exactly what has happened, I’m sure.
Consider the parallel of AMC’s own The Walking Dead. That show has never earned an Emmy nomination for its writing, but on the technical side it’s been nominated in multiple categories every single year since 2011—15 nominations in all, with two wins. That includes nominations in makeup, sound editing, visual effects AND stunt coordination. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that the show with the higher ratings also manages to pull in nominations every year like clockwork, while the more unorthodox martial arts program gets shut out. Are voters shutting off their TV’s immediately after The Walking Dead and missing the world-class choreography that immediately follows it?
And so, members of the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences, I’m telling you now—whoever among you actually pays attention to a category as humble as “stunt coordination,” you need to get off your asses and watch the current season of Into the Badlands. It’s high time we recognized the most purely (and stylishly) action-packed show on TV in 2017.
Into the Badlands airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and snake style kung fu master. You can follow him on Twitter.