Given “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter’s let’s-get-medieval sensibilities, the wedding of his knack for dark and violent material with an early 14-century setting sounds like a match made in a hellacious Heaven. Yet the collision proves a trifle jarring in his latest FX series, “The Bastard Executioner,” which proves too uneven to be satisfying — flitting from grisly violence to elaborate dream sequences to the occasional flourish seemingly plucked from Mel Brooks’ “History of the World.” Watching the first three hours isn’t torture, but nor is it as compelling as the series to which it will be inevitably compared.
At its heart a revenge tale with a twist, the most apt reference point would be “Braveheart”: With the heir of King Longshanks and his British barons ruling over their Welsh fiefdoms with iron fists, the knight Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones) has taken refuge from his killing ways, living a farmer’s life in a small village with a loving and pregnant wife (Elen Rhys).
Not surprisingly, the good times can’t last, and a raid by Brattle and his neighbors against the king’s tax collector yields terrible consequences, courtesy of the local lord (Brian F. O’Byrne) and his scheming, ruthless chamberlain (“True Blood’s” Stephen Moyer). Hungry for blood, Brattle announces to his comrades, “I’ve no plan but vengeance.” Gradually, though, that morphs into an unexpected opportunity to infiltrate the castle by posing as an executioner, which, oddly, means Wilkin has something in common with “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, just in a more overtly cutthroat trade.
Guiding him through all this, for motives that are initially unclear, is, for lack of a better term, a Slavic witch, Annora, played by Sutter’s real-life wife (and former “SOA” co-star) Katey Sagal. While Sagal is a fine actress, here her thickly accented mystic healer risks lapsing into parody, sounding as if she were impersonating Maria Ouspenskaya from those old “The Wolfman” movies. (Sutter also casts himself in a small, unrecognizable role, in what amounts to a sly callback to his last series.)
Directed by another “Sons” alumn, Paris Barclay, the series does find outlets for dark humor, including a local villager (Darren Evans) who’s a little too attached to his sheep. Yet while the violence is clearly organic to this world, at least initially it’s not as grounded in character as something like “Game of Thrones” or even History’s “Vikings.” As a consequence, the barbarism and brutality at times feels more like the point of the show rather than a part of it.
In a broader sense, FX could use some good news after a relatively tepid summer ratings-wise with “Tyrant” and “The Strain.” Smartly, the network is premiering the show with two episodes, which provides a much clearer sense of its direction than a single hour would have. Sutter, moreover, is such a colorful personality that he brings his own fan base to the exercise almost in the way a star would, which, after “Sons,” should help generate sampling. (“The Americans’” Matthew Rhys also has a small cameo, in what amounts to a homecoming for the Welsh actor.)
The question is how many viewers will stick around, and whether “Bastard Executioner” can find the means to sustain interest and narrative momentum surrounding the predicament of Brattle’s awkward identity switch. Because while the idea clearly has promise, if this first swing of the ax is any guide, the thumbs-up — or down — verdict really will rest on execution.