Netflix’s The Witcher is a thrilling and entertaining TV show starring Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia, the mutant-powered loner who slays monsters by profession. Not everyone will love it, of course, and it’s not a brilliant show. Yet this series gets down to business right away, so whether it’s your thing or not should be evident after the first episode. There’s no “give it some time” factor here, and that’s refreshing in a time of over-padded TV shows on the streaming front. Still, neither fans of the book series nor players of the (non-canon) video games are likely to be disappointed with what they find.
Is that the entire gist of the review? Nope. I need to talk about how unanticipated this conclusion is on my end. You see, I had steeled myself for a campy and tolerable series. It’s not campy, but it is pulpy and pleasurably so, although my expectations were certainly defied. That’s partially because, while I didn’t expect to see a bodice-ripping take on the source material, there was part of me that expected an overly sexed-up romp. After all, the first chronological book, The Last Wish (by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski), begins with a sex scene. Also, the first look at Cavill wearing a Geralt wig was not amazing but, instead, kind-of like Fabio-esque cosplay. Oh, and the first trailer prominently showed off Geralt smugly lounging in a tub of steaming water.
Not that Geralt doesn’t take a bath in this series, mind you. He does so twice in the first five episodes that I screened for this review. Does he look … nice … while doing so? Well, sure, but the steamy aspects of this series are not gratuitous. The same goes for the fight scenes, which are all purposefully rendered with attention to detail. There are also sweeping battle scenes between great armies that are (gasp!) well lit, and that’s only one of the Game of Thrones comparisons that you’ll soon see. I’m not saying that The Witcher is better than Thrones because that would be ridiculous, but it’s all relative here. Aesthetically speaking, the Netflix series is holding its own on the visibility front.
This also brings me to my headline, which might sound a little insulting. Do I really feel like this series shouldn’t be good? Of course not, but — let’s face it — showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich could have cut some corners and churned out a less-than-quality product, and the viewing clicks still would have been plentiful. However, I am certain that a lot of folks will be impressed at what turned out to be a pretty good show. It’s not going to be addictive simply as a guilty pleasure but because the storytelling, pacing, and depth of character all work out well.
Really though, the TV show plays a lot more seriously than expected, and as promised, it leans toward horror while staying away from some of the fantasy elements from the books and games. So, it’s horror/drama/adventure with regular doses of stand-out action scenes. That last point shouldn’t be too shocking, right? I mean, we are talking about Cavill. Presumably, you’ve seen his work beyond Man Of Steel. He’s quite adept when it comes to hand-to-hand combat scenes and mastering fight choreography. Here, Cavill uses the latter skill to his advantage while engaging within intense fights with a sword (of which Geralt carries two, one for monsters and one for humans). And it’s all him. No stunt double, nothing, and these are oftentimes complex clashes.
Even if the series was otherwise garbage, it would be difficult to not respect such a hardcore approach. Henry Cavill might, historically speaking, one day be considered the best sword-fighter in a white wig (faux hair that’s actually not that terrible when viewed in context). It’s also worth noting that the leading man is an honest-to-god nerd who adores The Witcher games and read the books. He’s a fan of the source material, rather than simply being a hired gun, and it shows. He embodies the soul of Geralt, who fully realizes that he’s loathed by most of humanity due to a mutant-reputation thing, and he’s almost comically annoyed by it all. It’s one of the more amusing parts of the show, but there are also tragic moments. It’s a well-rounded series, really.
With all of that said, Netflix has also handicapped this review in a sense by handing out an extensive list of things that cannot be discussed. That’s the streaming giant’s recent routine for highly-anticipated series, but the approach also arrives with a downside. For example, I cannot discuss most of the monsters in this series by name or description, so I can’t detail whether or not these creatures are fearsome. Yes, the effects are a little “off,” but overall, they’re not terrible. Now, the enormous spider-monster from the first episode doesn’t appear on the “spoiler” list, and maybe because there was a flash of this entity, an Arachnomorph, in the San Diego Comic-Con footage previewed earlier this year. What I can say is that the full scene happens very early, and it swiftly sets the tone for the season.
Also not a spoiler? Geralt’s destiny becomes intertwined with the fate of two ladies, a sorceress named Yennifer (Anya Chalotra) and Princess Ciri (Freya Allan), but I can’t tell you too much about them, other than to say that former undergoes a somewhat lengthy transformation, and she’s an honest-to-god multifaceted character. Actually, both of these leading female characters are strong and determined and flawed and compelling and all of the things that lady nerds will enjoy seeing. Yennifer and Ciri might make people stop referring to The Witcher as “the Henry Cavill show.” And this series might finally make people stop referring to Cavill as Superman or ex-Superman and, instead, as a theater-trained actor who made a nerd-fueled passion project — which, yes, really has no business being this enjoyable.
Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’ begins streaming on December 20.