MTV never quite gets the credit it deserves for its non-music programming. Awkward., Faking It, and Teen Wolf are all surprisingly good, sometimes even brilliant, shows that tend to cruise under the critical radar thanks to the network and their audience. But its bid to have a fill-in series for Game of Thrones fans, The Shannara Chronicles, is trying to be too many fantasy series at once.
If you know your fantasy, it’s a little surprising a TV series of these books took this long. Terry Brooks’ Shannara series was the first fantasy series to crack the New York Times‘ bestseller list, back in the ’70s, proving that there was an audience for fantasy and that Tolkien wasn’t just a one-off. Set thousands of years after the nukes fly in the Pacific Northwest, over time it’s sprawled into a seventeen-book series and sold millions of copies. But much like A Song of Ice And Fire before HBO came along, it’s not widely discussed outside of fantasy reading circles.
Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, best known for Smallville, are running the show, and there’s definitely a strong whiff of the teen superhero soap to these proceedings. They wisely skip over the first book, which is more or less a standard hero’s journey, instead adapting the second novel, The Elfstones of Shannara. The pilot quickly establishes the strong-willed elf princess Amberle (Poppy Drayton) as she wins the right to be one of the Chosen, a religious order that maintains the Elcrysse, a giant tree. Amberle quickly discovers the Elcrysse is communicating with her, which scares her off, not least because it shows her a vision of her murdering her boyfriend.
Meanwhile, would-be healer Wil (Austin Butler) finds himself newly orphaned and decides to set off for the big city to apprentice, leaving his father’s embarrassing legacy of drunkenness and tall tales behind. Wil promptly gets into trouble and is saved by Eretria (Ivana Baquero), who turns out to be a thief. Soon after he meets Allanon (Manu Bennett), an ancient Druid warrior who knew Wil’s father and tells Wil that he’s the last of the Shannara bloodline, a legacy of ancient Elf kings. Turns out the Elcrysse is a lock of sorts, keeping demons out of the realm, and only a chosen few can bathe its seed in the Bloodfire and plant a new Elcrysse.
As you might have gathered, the pilot is rather dense with exposition, and it doesn’t explain as much as you’d like. For example, the show features elves living in a medieval-like society who for some reason don’t believe in magic, yet are willing to run an obstacle course blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs for the honor of watering a magic tree. Not helping matters is the painfully generic art direction, although the effects are surprisingly good for a basic cable fantasy series.
It would help if the cast could sell the setting or at least make it feel lived in, but Baquero and Drayton in particular are flat at first, although once they start playing off each other, things pick up. The best element of the show is Butler, whose Wil takes over the hero role from Allanon in the books and combines noble hero and comic relief. Wil is understandably grumpy about being swept up in an epic and dangerous quest, and the show’s often at its best when it lets Butler play off Bennett or gets Wil in hot water for his poor romantic choices. Still, none of the younger cast feel like they’re in a fantasy world, a contrast made sharper by Bennett and John Rhys-Davies as the elven king running around as if they fight demons and lead elf nations all the time.
Right now, it’s a pretty standard fantasy show, but there are rumblings of something better here. The pilot has an all-too-brief moment where Allanon, who’s barely aged in 300 years, meets a woman whom he loved and has spent decades pining for him after he disappeared. The mighty warrior is left with nothing to say, and it’s a nice moment of the sort the show needs more of. The fourth episode even manages to take a hoary fantasy plot, about a shapeshifter running around killing people, and make it work as a story.
Still, it needs to choose a tone and stick with it: Is it a grim, gory fantasy series like Game of Thrones? Is it a high-toned costume drama like Lord of the Rings? Is it a teen drama like Smallville? Or maybe a snarky action show like Buffy or Xena: Warrior Princess? It tries on all of these shows in the first four episodes and none of them entirely fit. There’s promise here, though. The Shannara Chronicles probably won’t scratch that Game of Thrones itch you have. But if it’s willing to stop trying to be something else and stand apart, it could be a welcome change of pace.