I can’t believe I’m saying this, but what happened to the old days when MTV was nothing but perpetual reruns of My Super Sweet Sixteen and Date My Mom? Wake up, Netflix generation: that wasn’t just a couple years back. That was 2006, which is now officially ten years ago. Can you believe it? It’s been a whole decade since Basic Instinct 2 came out. But we’re not here to talk about Sharon Stone (although I encourage her to cameo in the program we are discussing), we’re here to talk about MTV’s newest and most ambitious TV project since Spyder Games – The Shannara Chronicles, a new epic based on the novels of Terry Brooks.
A lot of people have been looking at Shannara, turning up their noses (prematurely) and saying, “Gross! It’s a Game of Thrones rip-off! Somebody step on it!” Settle down. It’s okay. The Shannara Chronicles isn’t a blatant rip-off of Game of Thrones; it’s just marketed that way. And despite having superficial things in common, like visual cues and the scope of its storytelling, both shows are not made from the same cloth. At all.
What Shannara is blatantly ripping off is, actually, Star Wars. Oh, and Tolkien too. All the Tolkien ever. Can’t forget to pay homage to him if you’re an epic fantasy book series. Nope.
(There might be a dash of Harry Potter thrown in there too, just to taste.)
The first two episodes of Shannara are basically A New Hope recast with models wearing elf ears, none of which have lightsabers. The producers of this show, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, knew that adapting The Elfstones of Shannara (which is book two of the trilogy) basically meant having to remake Star Wars. Rather than playing these parallels down, they fully embraced every single, ahem, “reference” the story “payed homage” to. Except, they did it with the aplomb of an over-stimulated eight year-old playing through Lego Lord of the Rings for the tenth time. And speaking as someone who has been an over-stimulated eight year-old, I dig that.
When I found out that Millar and Gough were the team behind Shannara, I was surprised. I spent the past two months reviewing the first season of Into the Badlands, their other new series on AMC, which was a somber martial arts drama set in the post-apocalyptic deep south. That show had its enjoyable moments and some incredible fight scenes, but it suffered being too short and too slow simultaneously. The Shannara Chronicles, meanwhile, is the exact opposite; its burned through more plots in the just two episodes than Badlands did in six, which kept my attention. In that respect, it’s the better series of the two. Its vision is more realized, it has a clearer direction, and (most importantly) momentum. Plus, it’s kind of gorey.
Yes, it’s derivative. Yes, it’s Star Wars chased with a shot of Lord of the Rings. And, yes, it makes the same strange anachronistic choices with its costume design that movies like Ever After did. Shannara, in essence, is Pastiche: The Legendary Adventures. But it’s the light-hearted high fantasy TV series that we wished existed in the 1980s but didn’t. We have it now. You don’t have to get by on Legend of the Seeker reruns anymore. You’re welcome.
As I sat there, watching a two-hour pilot for based on a book series I’ve never read, I felt something that I haven’t felt from a fantasy series in a long time – immersed. I felt immersed in a magical world much like those I would catch glimpses of on the covers illustrations of books I picked up in the fantasy section as a kid. The special effects and the art direction and the locations chosen for filming all come together to create a world you want to explore. The atmospheric touches manage to elevate the most contrived plot point to blockbuster material. Much like the music videos that used to air on the same network, Shannara is made with a sweet tooth for eye candy. It has the power to achieve catharsis through the synergy of sound and imagery which makes it watchable, and that’s one of its greatest strengths. It also demonstrates that it’s perfectly okay to play a Beck song as diegetic music in an epic fantasy show.
Is there a more perfect time for a show like The Shannara Chronicles to come out than now? After the ecstatical nostalgic orgy of The Force Awakens, the world is greased up and ready for such a hackneyed genre show. No way in Helheim would another series get away with the sheer amount of recycling this show does. Where else could anyone get away with ripping off story beats from the most iconic film ever and have a rip roaring good time at getting away with it? And, yet, if this had been a feature film, it would be damned to the bowels of Netflix alongside that Left Behind remake starring Nicolas Cage and every Uwe Boll movie ever. Since it’s a TV show, we’re somehow more accepting of storytelling sloppy seconds in that medium because we know you have to feed the ongoing story beast something to keep it running.
“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” This must have been the mantra during production on Shannara. The high quality presentation of such trite material is nothing short of inspirational, as art direction and set design are the show’s white bread and margarine. The acting, on the other hand, is merely adequate. That’s the most realistic adjective I can use to describe the performances. The actors know that they’re there to sell the story, but they’re not the stars of the show. They’re there to compliment the special effects. I’m not saying they’re bad at acting, they’re just acting according to direction here, and that’s what happens with effects heavy productions sometimes. This is a series that learned all about emoting from an acting master class taught by Episode II: Attack of the Clones, after all. (No, I take that back. Shannara’s acting is way better.)
The characters themselves are a generic lot of Mary Sues and Marty Stus caught up in tabletop roleplaying game – and, somehow, they don’t annoy me. Amberle is a fortunate choice for the main heroine, as she’s nothing more than a Rey clone with strands of Katniss DNA mixed in to achieve optimal levels of moxy. Her meta-quest for female empowerment in a male dominated fairyland is timely and should inspire countless tweeting teen girls out there. WIl is Luke Skywalker as played by Isaac Hanson, with Elijah Wood as inspiration. Eretria is a sexy gypsy thief portrayed by the girl from Pan’s Labyrinth. Allanon is not the support group for alcoholics but rather a badass Druid warrior played by someone who actually was in Lord of the Rings, which adds some legitimacy. Jonathan Rhys Davies, who was in Lord of the Rings too, plays King Eventine. But, he was also in Sliders, so…
That brings us to Dagda Mor, the spawn of all ogres, wizards and demons from every fantasy movie, good and bad, in the past twenty years, multiplied by Darth Vader. He’s one of the more fascinating elements of the show, and certainly the most entertaining, and a big reason why I’m so forgiving towards this show. Dagda’s sequences were so creatively delivered and visually realized that I was spellbound whenever he was on screen. I’m glad that the producers were smart enough to know that a Darth Vader knock-off must have a powerful presence just like the dark lord of the Sith himself. Is he Wil’s dad who used to Elfstones too much? Probably. Because Darth Vader. But I don’t care, just keep giving us trippy sequences where he makes out with beautiful women until they turn into flying lava demons that kill old defenseless women.
There’s something ironic about watching elven characters in a high fantasy series drenched in romance and mysticism argue and debate about whether or not magic is real. We’re miles ahead of most of the cast in this department, as they’re all on the fence about whether or not The Force is actually with them. We feel like yelling at the naysayers during certain points of the show, but then we hold back because we want to see what will happen story wise to shut them up.
If this show never met a fantasy cliche it didn’t like, it also has thing for regurgitating sound bites of dialogue we’ve heard from every sci-fi/action movie that has come out since we were born. And, still, each snipped that is coughed up doesn’t sound so bad. They manage to keep the action going and the majestic set pieces coming, so who cares.
So, The Shannara Chronicles. Star Wars cover band, or Lord of the Rings fan film? (Or a sequel to Krull?) I’ll let you decide that. I’m going to sit back and enjoy a TV show that’s a remix, a fantasy melody with a sci-fi beat. This is MTV, after all. I, for one, am going to enjoy it for what it is.