What do you get when you cross epic-fantasy heavily inspired by Tolkien with a post apocalyptic future and MTV? Apparently the answer is The Shannara Chronicles a series that is, based on the first four episodes, resolutely... okay. I mean it's just exactly what you would expect... I guess? It's not like it's bad... you know?
By this point my ambivalence should be shining through and there are a few reasons for that. One is of course the fact that someone in their forties isn't in the prime demographic for MTV dramas. Another is that while I acknowledge their flaws I do have a soft spot for the first three Shannara books (and particularly Elfstones which this series is mostly based on). The biggest problem though is that the show itself seems caught in a love triangle of its own. Pulled inexorably in two different directions. Is it an epic fantasy with the fate of the world in the balance, or is it in fact a story of teen angst, political intrigue and romance?
Wow, that's Pretty
The Shannara Chronicles is undeniably gorgeous to look at as the photos here show. It was filmed on location in New Zealand giving it epic vistas for the cameras to swoop over and the ability to echo some of The Lord of the Rings grandeur.
To their credit though the shows producers have not settled for a simple Rings copy which, given the source material, is actually quite impressive. The Sword of Shannara is "inspired" by The Lord of the Rings in much the way that The Force Awakens is inspired by Star Wars and while The Elfstones of Shannara was considerably more original its origins remain unmistakable. In this case however, the producers have done their best to play up the differences.
The world of Shannara was always intended to be set centuries after an apocalypse on present day earth and there are multiple references to it in the books, but for the majority of the early stories it set far in the background and the illustrations always emphasized that traditional fantasy look and feel. Not so here where the future earth elements are brought to the fore with wrecked helicopters, ruined cars and the odd biker jacket on display. In truth this is a very good thing, although it does make me wonder how long after the apocalypse this is supposed to be and how the races managed to diverge (except for the elves, they were always there) so quickly.
All of this looks absolutely stunning as do the beautiful young people who populate the cast. There are very few old people in the world of Shannara apparently, even amongst the elves. Unless you are John Rhys-Davies, James Remar or Manu Bennett (who probably just gets away with it by being excessively manly) and you are old, you're going to die in this show. Not that being young and pretty guarantees you'll survive, but it does seem to help.
Not that the primarily young cast are bad. They are generally adequate to good in their roles. They just make me feel old and ugly. Which is okay, because I am, but it's nice to live in denial.
Aren't You a Little Small to be an Epic?
If the sweeping vistas and world ending scenario clearly point us towards the epic portion of the fantasy library, unfortunately the execution rather undercuts this. As far as I can tell Allanon and Wil Ohmsford are able to criss-cross the Four Lands in a matter of minutes. Okay you don't have to show quite as much walking as say The Fellowship of the Ring does but would it have killed them to give us a few minutes of people on horseback? Because if I wasn't familiar with the book I would be left with the impression that all the locations we've visited in these four episdoes are just down the street from each other.
And it doesn't help that four episodes in they've barely introduced anyone but the elves plus one band of humans. Now granted this particular story does focus on them heavily and we did get to see a Troll. But the Gnomes have only gotten a few mentions while dwarves haven't put in an appearance at all.
When you combine that with what feels like a very small cast of characters (basically the 5 regulars plus 8 recurring many of whom barely speak) it just doesn't feel that epic. This may be a budget limitation. I imagine all the special effects etc. were quite expensive and perhaps there's just not much left for actors.
Apocalyptic Fantasy Future or Contemporary Teen Drama?
It's really the language that lets Shannara down more than anything else. Far too often our protagonists either slip into contemporary diction our present us with attitudes that are so now it's like a slap in the face. Why do we need dialogue telling us the girls are as good as boys when we are not in contemporary society and could just be shown it as a fact? Why do we get eye-rolling snark and cynicism that feels like something I'd see in The Vampire Diaries and sits at odds with what is happening around them? Combine that with an increased focus on the primary characters sex lives and it's clear that MTV is appealing to what it sees as its core audience. Fair enough, you can't really argue with demographics.
But every time they do it I am pulled out of this future fantasy world and back to the present. That's exactly what shouldn't happen.
To make matters worse while the show seems to be following the broad sweep of the book the changes it makes are consistently for the worse because it seems that it has an unerring knack for finding the most cliched direction and charging towards it. And I say that knowing that the book itself is pretty cliched at times.
Why is the Dagda Mor now a fallen druid? Because he'll be more relatable. Why is the love triangle between Amberle, Wil and Eretria spelled out so early? So the viewers can pick their sides. Why does Wil give a stirring speech defending Amberle? Because all shows must have their hero giving a stirring speech. Why does Arion Elessedil doubt the existence of magic when he is quite literally given examples of it all around him? Because you have to have that doubting character. If there's a pool of cliche-tropewater nearby this show is going to jump in it.
Watch, DVR or Skip?
All of which probably makes it sound like I hate it. But I really don't. It's fine for what it is, 50 minutes of pretty entertainment. This is not Game of Thrones or The Expanse and I don't think it really has any pretensions to be. It's a tv show following a much more traditional model. Compare it to something like The Flash perhaps.
If you have limited tv viewing time or a particular fondness for the books I'd probably say skip it, but if you can tolerate some teen angst and enjoy some bubblegum tv, it's an entertaining way to pass the hour. DVR it and watch when you have some free time.
It will at least be very pretty to look at.