2 out of 5
Created by: Glenn Standring
There’s a certain amount of earnestness fueling The Dead Lands, in respectively showing off the ancient Maori culture around which it’s focused, that carries it quite a ways. Quite a ways, considering that there’s nearly no other notable aspect of the show, which wastes two compelling lead actors on a complete dearth of character development, and recycles its thin plot beats – taken from a 100-minute movie of the same name and by the same creator and stretched to 8 episodes… – again and again, occasionally spicing up its limited budget with some nifty visual concepts, but then dulling that spice back down with poor pacing and generally boring framing.
Sound like your cuppa?
The show isn’t bad, if I’m making it sound that way, it’s just ridiculously flat. There’s enough of a premise to definitely work – in the “weird Western” subgenre, flip-flopping zombies to ancient Maori times – with the world having “broken,” allowing the dead to walk and ravage, but the most complex of stories can be brought low by writing and presentation, just as the most simplistic can be brought high by the same. The problem is already in motion as we begin, with Mehe (Darneen Christian) tasked to find the notorious Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka) to see if he can figure things out, and so they team up and… wander. Without much direction. They stumble into some dead, run away scared and then fight back and slaughter them easily, chasing a rumor that so-and-so might have the secret to fixing the world, and repeat, and repeat.
Why is Waka Nuku Rau so notorious? The show forgets to tell us. He’s apparently vicious, and renowned, and yet people seem to laugh at his name when he shows up, and he loses a lot of fights. He can dream-walk, it seems – though this was unknown to Mehe, so also not really a reason for seeking him out – and this is where he receives his various fetch quests that propel most episodes, tasked by one dead relative or another, but the show makes a big deal out of him rejecting their guidance, only to double-back on that minutes later and go do what they said anyway. Similarly, Mehe and Waka clash and then bond, then forget they bonded and clash again, and then suddenly they’re true friends, and then they’re hating each other again. There is no real rhyme or reason for this, it’s just guided by whatever extends the scene for a few minutes more. Occasionally some “evil spirit” will possess someone, until the show forgets about this as well. The dead are the ultimate threat! …Except when they’re not, which is always, dispatched pretty easily, most of the time. Unlike, say, The Walking Dead, where the amount of zombies was often the threat, The Dead Lands’ lands are pretty empty, resulting in one-on-one scuffles that are nicely choreographed, with dashes of gore – showing off Maori weapons and fighting styles – but are rare punctuations to all that wandering, and back-and-forthering.
Christian and Tuhaka are a lot of fun to watch. They add complexity to their characters that isn’t supported by the script, with Christian doing her best to make sense of Mehe’s conflicting states of childish dullard and wise woman, and Te Kohe giving Waka a sort of classic, Jack Burton-esque read to balance out his questionable status as a badass. And, as mentioned, there’s the respect for Maori culture which helps keep this thing trucking: there’s no modern-day “framing” to try to justify their mysticism, or unnecessary exposition to explain their traditions – it’s all just offered up for our consumption. However accurate it is I cannot say, but it felt real, and buoyed by the lead performances, I was able to make it through 8ish hours of an extended trek through the jungle, bopping the occasional dead fella over the head.