The Shannara Chronicles debuted this past Tuesday and, since I think I may have dated a girl named Shannara at some point, I've been tasked with recapping and reviewing it every week.
Since I've never read any of the books by Terry Brooks upon which the series is based, I'll be judging The Shannara Chronicles based solely on its merits as a TV show and not on how well it's being adapted. But, by all means, feel free to discuss the differences in the comments.
Before we start, let's acknowledge how weird it is to watch an actual factual fantasy series on MTV. I mean, yeah, MTV's got Teen Wolf and Scream, but high-flung fantasy? Seems like it could be a bit of a stretch.
So, how serious is MTV here? Serious enough that they got Jon Favreau to exec-produce the pilot. That means they're willing to throw money at Shannara, but how about making it feel like fantasy? How did they do with that?
They cast John Rhys-Davies to play king of the elves, that's how they did. And nothing quite says fantasy like casting John Rhys-Davies. I know what you're thinking -- ELF KING?! Yes, my boy John is definitely a natural-born dwarf, but let's give the brother a shot at playing against type.
A quick understanding of the universe -- The Shannara Chronicles is set in our world, but many years after an apocalyptic event ended our civilization. That means you'll see the remains of cars, street signs and the like, but that this is very much a fantasy world. We're talking swords, we're talking thieves, trolls, elves and magic. That last thing, though, magic? That's a bit of a complication. You see, most of the beings alive at the start of this story don't actually think magic exists.
And both these conceits work very well for The Shannara Chronicles. By still setting the adventure on Earth, MTV can get away with sneaking in some modern colloquialisms if it wants to because, hey, we're still on Earth and maybe some of our lexicon slipped through into this wondrous new age. Making magic a bit of a relic of an older time makes it so most of our protagonists can marvel at its existence, just like we would. That's pretty crucial if you're trying to get young people (who might not already be into fantasy) to watch your show starring very pretty young people that just so happens to be high fantasy.
In fact, The Shannara Chronicles has got all the aspects of fantasy down pat, maybe even a bit too pat. If you've ever read or watched anything fantasy-related, some of this is going to sound familiar.
Here's the gist of the pilot: Amberle Elessedil, an elf princess, is going against the rules and training to become one of the seven chosen to stand guard over an ancient tree called the Ellcrys. The Ellcrys is supposedly a magical sentry that, after a great war, stands guard to keep out all the demons and evils that have been locked away in someplace called the Forbidding. However, when Amberle succeeds in becoming one of the seven chosen and, in a ritual, touches the Ellcrys, she has a vision of death and ruin. Thinking that the vision is prophetic and assuming that what's to come is her fault (because she broke the rules, you see), Amberle flees her kingdom.
While Amberle is having her vision, the last living druid, Allanon, awakes, sensing that all is not well.
Simultaneously, a young halfling (half elf, half human), Wil Ohmsford, attends his dying mother. She gives Wil elf stones that belonged to his elven father, sending him on a quest to discover what next to do with his life...which brings him into contact with a young Rover (think wandering thief) named Eretria who rescues Wil from a troll attack (yay!) but also steals his father's elf stones (doh!).
All these events lead up to two important events:
1. The Ellcrys is dying, and with each leaf that falls, more demons escape the Forbidding.
2. Allanon, Wil, and Amberle join forces to fight back the demons and perhaps save the Ellcrys (and their own world) in the process.
That's your pilot and, as pilots go, it works. Everything moves along at a nice clip, it's relatively easy to pick up things as they go along, and, when everything works, it's fun.
Now, let's talk specifics -- good, bad, and ugly style.
- The show looks good -- shockingly good. I'm not sure why MTV so gamely threw a lot of money at this show, but I'm really glad they did. There are some great exterior shots and all the set pieces are really stunning and go a long way in making the world of Shannara seem real.
- The costumes are a bit everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, but they're more hit than miss. Get a good look at some of the metal work on the elven accessories, especially. The metal tips on their ears, the armor-like necklaces, and a ton of other small touches all scream high fantasy.
- Wil Ohmsford is a true blue, relatable homeboy. Austin Butler is doing a heck of a fine job in playing that affable oaf who has the potential for something more. Wil's not unlike Finn in The Force Awakens -- he's a hero who thinks he's a coward. You need that guy in a story about heroes and monsters and destiny.
- Manu Bennett is hot. I mean he's hot. I mean he's talented. And he's shirtless sometimes, too. Anyway, it's nice to have a druid character be something other than a doddering old guy. My man is beefy, and he's building up some John Rhy-Davies levels of gravitas with his growly man voice. And he's got this "magic comes with a price" schtick which hints at some physical and emotional angst that I think are gonna really work for the character going forward.
- Some of this stuff is very familiar. We know Wil's dad is an elf who fought demons, we know of at least one elf who turned evil (he's got dark eyes and piercings and everything!), but we don't know what happened to Wil's dad, which is very shades of Darth Vader. And Allanon as the last of the Jedi, I mean druids, being set up to teach Wil how to use the Force, I mean magic, is very Obi-Wan and Luke. I'm not saying that riffing off A New Hope is bad, but you probably shouldn't do it too much unless you're a new Star Wars movie. You get what I'm throwing down?
- Amberle is too busy running away from her own destiny to quite get a sense of who she is beyond scared. There's plenty of show left, so I'm not too concerned, but we definitely need more of her role fleshed out. And speaked of flesh, they had a nude scene (sort of) with her already. I guess there are worse things, but buy a girl a drink first, ya know? Take her to the drive-in. Jeez.
- Eretria. Eretria, Eretria, Eretria. What are we gonna do with you? Again, this is just the pilot and there's plenty of room for growth, but Ivana Baquero's performance, frankly, leaves a lot to be desired so far. Inasmuch as I can accept that Shannara is still Earth, Baquero is portraying Eretria almost as though she's in the modern day, not in a fantasy world. She just sticks out, and not in a good way. Again, this is just the pilot and I'm sure she's capable, but in this episode Eretria's scenes were the ones I couldn't wait for to end.
- And speaking of Eretria, her dad apparently owns her and is using said ownership to keep her in line. He keeps threatening to marry her off or, worse, sell her. I don't know if that's in the source material, but I could do without that old "my dad's gonna prostitue me so now I'm a bad girl" riff. It's boring and there's plenty of other ways to let Eretria work contrary to the other characters' interests.
- There's some lazy looking CGI at the end of the pilot. Wil, Allanon, and Amberle get attacked by this winged demon and it just looked hilariously bad. Maybe that's nitpicking, but with all the solid practical stuff, it would be a shame if the audience kept getting taken out of the moment over some shoddy CGI.
And that's just about the ball game. If you're looking for a simple answer to the "should I or shouldn't I watch The Shannara Chronicles" question -- I think you should. It's neat seeing MTV try to simultaneously bring fantasy to the millennials and the millennial style to fantasy. And, plus, if you watch it then we can talk about it together. Oh, the times we could have!
Odds and ends
There's a shapeshifter hiding out in John Rhys-Davies' kingdom and I'm putting money down says he's gonna figure it out and take care of business, Rhys-Davies' style.
Why do trolls wear gas masks? I mean, it's creepy and all, but they're just in the open air. Does open air smell like farts in Shannara world or something? Should I get a gas mask? Help me understand your motivation, trolls!
Why do they call them "elf stones"? Why would you name your stones after your entire race? That's just silly. At that point, you might as well just call them "Yo, I think these things is magic, son!" stones. Dear MTV, I'm available. Please contact. Thank you.
*Correction: In the original article, I referred to trolls as orcs. Oops.