(CNN)Basic cable often wants to prove that it can compete with premium channels. Two new examples, though, "Knightfall" and "Happy!," seem to confuse ratcheting up the ante on violence with delivering what will be perceived as a program worth paying for.
'Knightfall,' 'Happy!' ratchet up gore, not quality
On paper, History's "Knightfall" sounds like a great idea: a drama about the Knights Templar searching for the Holy Grail, replete with a number of "Downton Abbey" alumni in its sizable cast.
The result, however, is a handsomely produced series that has the flavor of a British tea-time show -- one of those dramas that air in the afternoon, designed to broadly appeal to audiences young and old -- only infused with a lot more violence and gore, as well as soapy elements that feel tired practically from the get-go.
Tom Cullen plays Landry, the noble knight whose order is charged by the Pope (fellow "Abbey" alum Jim Carter, this time in a different Abbey, as well as gigantic hats) with locating the Grail, the legendary cup of Christ,after its disappearance in 1291. But among other things, Landy has been secretly dallying with Queen Joan of Navarre (Olivia Ross) under the nose of her hubby, King Philip IV of France (Ed Stoppard), who considers Landry his bosom pal.
Although the quest for the Grail provides the spine of the show, there are plenty of tributaries flowing out of it, including the king's trusted adviser William De Nogaret (Julian Ovenden, like Cullen, a former "Abbey" suitor of Lady Mary), a Cardinal Richelieu-type schemer. Few of them possess much spark, in a drama that seeks to present the grim reality of the times and yet occasionally feels a trifle anachronistic.
There's no mystery in what History saw in "Knightfall," whose 10-episode run has been scheduled immediately after its long-running hit "Vikings," a series that, with its bold move to kill off or otherwise shed key cast members, has seen better days based on a sampling of its fifth season.
Nevertheless, "Knightfall" proves that it's possible to come equipped with all the right accessories and still produce a show that winds up looking underdressed for a knight on the town.
In one sense, the violence in "Knightfall" proves less objectionable because the story transpires in medieval times. Alas, "Happy!" -- a darkly comic Syfy series, adapted from a graphic novel by the same name -- has no such excuse.
Chris Meloni ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") stars as Nick Sax, a slovenly hitman who is introduced plying his bloody trade. He's understandably shocked to be visited by Happy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a small blue unicorn who's the imaginary friend of the daughter Nick didn't know he had.
Why has Happy appeared? Because the girl has been abducted, with Happy trying to enlist Nick to rescue her. Yet even before that begins, the first two hours feature Nick dealing with an assortment of psychopaths and sadists, with Nick and Happy's wacky banter expected to offset the nastiness with comic relief.
Frankly, it's an odd fit for Syfy, closer in tone to AMC's "Preacher" than anything else, with perhaps a touch of another graphic novel brought to screen, "Sin City," for good measure.
Simply put, both "Knightfall" and "Happy!" represent the kind of shows that, in this age of TV abundance, somebody might like, but nobody really needed.
"Knightfall" and "Happy!" premiere Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. on History and Syfy, respectively.