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Kurt Sutter's 'Bastard Executioner' draws out a sword-and-sorcery tale to a painful degree

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

Fun fact: Wales has more castles per square mile than any other European country, which, according to many Welsh tourism websites, proves it is a country worth fighting for.

That could also be the reason Kurt Sutter set "The Bastard Executioner," his latest exploration of vengeance and violence for FX, in 14th century Wales. Small place, warring factions, history of bloodshed, terrific castle potential.

Or perhaps Sutter and his family — wife Katey Sagal stars in "Executioner," as does Sutter's step-daughter, Sarah White — needed a break from the SoCal palette of dust and heat from which he conjured the recently concluded "Sons of Anarchy."

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Unfortunately, three hours into the new series, which premieres Tuesday, it feels like Sutter picked 14th century Wales because all the other good locations and time periods were taken. The British countryside has "The White Queen" and a hundred other period pieces; "Game of Thrones" famously shoots all over Ireland, as does "Vikings"; and "Outlander" recently bagged 18th century Scotland.

That leaves "The Bastard Executioner" with Wales and a mild to severe case of pastiche, beginning with a time/place prologue that goes on for so long it borders on Monty Python. The problem with setting a series in medieval Wales or during the War of the Roses is that the audience needs to know what is going on historically, to understand the pathos and importance of the main characters.

Except in this case we really don't.

The first three hours of "Executioner" are such a mash-up of tropes and familiar story lines that the action could be set in any time and place in which the people are oppressed by local tyrants. Some are brave enough to rebel — swords remain the weapon of choice. The women are feisty but confined, and only the very rich have regular access to soap and water.

There are a few obligatory references to the fiery Welsh nature, but for all intents and purposes, "The Bastard Executioner" could be set in Westeros, Avalon or Sherwood Forest.

Indeed, for the first hour or so, it seems to be following a hard R-version of Robin Hood. Played, in this case, by one Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a skilled knight who has laid down his sword and begun anew as a humble farmer. Sort of. He may have forsworn iron, but he's pretty good with a cudgel.

He and a group of like-minded men have launched a series of raids on the tax collections for Baron Erik Ventris (Brian F. O'Byrne), a man we know is awful because he is so mean to his Welsh wife, Lady Love (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), and addresses his underlings from his toilet (forcing viewers to wonder if that is the same latrine on which Tywin Lannister died).

If the baron is terrible, his chamberlain, Milus Corbett ("True Blood's" Stephen Moyer), is worse; all slit-eyed sadism and menace, he speaks in a series of malign whispers.

Not surprisingly, there are, scattered among the sylvan glades, rebels who would overthrow these ghastly oppressors, but our Wilkin is not among them. No, when we meet him, he is content to steal back the unjustly collected taxes and live in quiet joy with his expectant wife and goodly neighbors.

By this point, it's clear to everyone — except Wilkin — that this is Not Going to Happen. Local witch Annora (Sagal in an unnecessarily dramatic wig hat and matching Eastern European accent), pops up to assure Wilkin that he has a Destiny. (Sutter plays Annora's companion, a burn victim known as the Dark Mute.)

After a series of bloody events that strain even time-traveling credulity, Wilkin takes on the identity of a traveling executioner/torturer, which brings him into direct contact with Milus and, more important, Lady Love, who is the best thing about the show.

Lovely, local and of course strong-willed, she has her own idea of how things should be run, but enough intelligence to realize any change must be handled delicately. One assumes the story will follow Wilkin's attempt to discover how far he will go for either vengeance or justice and that it will be mirrored by Lady Love's attempt to broker peace, with Annora acting, possibly, as the tale's Merlin.

Or not. It's hard to tell, and that's the problem.

By the end of the third episode (the premiere will include the first two), it is still not clear what "The Bastard Executioner" is about. It has many promising elements: evocative locations, a potentially fascinating time period (hey, everyone, the Black Death looms!) and a very strong cast (Matthew Rhys plays a rebel leader, and Timothy Murphy is a priest reminiscent of Derek Jacobi's "Cadfael"). Even with the wig and accent, Sagal's Annora is formidable; Spencer-Longhurst makes the Lady Love instantly compelling, and as Isabel, her childhood friend turned lady-in-waiting, White lends "Executioner" its few kindly and mischievous moments.

Sutter has epic intentions, and epics require exposition. But as Peter Jackson found, you've got to cut that wearisome Council of Elrond down to the bone and get the Fellowship on its journey. Wilkin's journey can be complicated or contradictory, internal or external, but there has to be one.

Otherwise, he's just one more sweaty guy made brutal by grief and the merciless nature of his surroundings, which include sorcerers, sadists and women straining against the sexism of the period. And frankly, we've got enough of those.

Twitter: @marymacTV

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'The Bastard Executioner'

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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