In “Cursed,” a new Netflix series that restages the Arthurian legend with a contemporary sensibility, Katherine Langford plays Nimue, a young woman whose sense of righteousness is inflected by, and inflamed with, a destiny to lead her people through a time of upheaval. At one point, a rival of sorts refers to her by the title “the Wolf Blood Witch, dreaded wielder of the Devil’s Tooth”; heard a certain way, it’s reminiscent of the many titles held by Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) on “Game of Thrones.”
“Cursed” has less on its mind than its predecessor in the sword-and-sorcery space, and its visual effects are notably less convincing. (It makes up for shortfalls in VFX with animated interstitials, which are compellingly done.) Yet it slots neatly into the new tradition of genre television that subverts classic myth and aspires to cross over — in this case, presenting Langford, the star of “13 Reasons Why,” as a draw for nascent fantasy fans. Nimue, born with fearsome gifts and a powerful bloodline, embarks on a mission to deliver a sword to Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård) with the aid of Arthur (Devon Terrell); she is sidetracked by revelations about who she is and what she can do and by matters of the heart.
Langford has a star’s charisma, but has been presented a brief that the show’s writing can’t quite resolve: playing both a fierce leader and a vulnerable young person. It’s not that these traits can’t coexist (to wit, they did in Daenerys, the modern archetype of a certain sort of character), but the feints by “Cursed” toward present-day patterns of speech and thought make Nimue’s moments of higher dudgeon seem random. When she tells Arthur that she wants to run away with him to a place where “we could just be us,” or when she says, of Arthur, that “it’s kind of hard to describe what we are,” the clattering 21st-century tones make the trappings feel less like medieval times than like the restaurant Medieval Times.
Some updates here are welcome; Terrell (likely best known for playing Barack Obama in the film “Barry”) is a divergent choice for a character traditionally depicted as white, and the actor carries the mantle with grace and ease. And the remixing of familiar names like Gawain and Merlin into new roles within the mythos — as previously done in the graphic novel source material, by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler — is carried off with brio. (Miller and Wheeler are executive producers here, with Wheeler acting as showrunner.)
Breeziness, though, is a double-edged sword, as it were. And the story’s lack of fealty to the roles particular characters are meant to play in myth or the way they have traditionally looked can give way to a leaning on modern cliché that suggests a dearth of better ideas. Placing the characters in unusual arrangements, with a young woman destined to be the Lady of the Lake at the center of the myth, is a creative notion; giving her first-thought dialogue and often schematic motivations suggests that the creativity here has limits too.