I can make this review of MTV’s new show The Shannara Chronicles very short: The Lord of the Rings and Thundarr the Barbarian hooked up and had a The Hills baby. That didn’t sound at all appealing to me, but wow do I like this show.
It airs Tuesdays at 10 PM and you can stream the first four episodes, assuming your cable or satellite networks plays well with MTV.
Want more? You might as well. You’re here and I’m a pretty entertaining writer. Let’s go on.
I hadn’t planned to watch MTV’s attempt to steal audience from HBO’s Game of Thrones. I watched the commercials. I saw the pretty young people with stylishly-ruffled hair kissing each other in front of generic-fantasy forests. I saw the relationship problems forming in the troubled glances of the main characters whose perfectly made-up faces wore artful smudges of generic-fantasy dirt. This was not the Shannara I remembered. Those novels were full of fearsome trolls, wicked goblins, horrific demons, plenty of action, and a tall, brooding druid who refused to give the main characters an ounce of useful information unless it was dragged out of him by those aforementioned demons. They were not kissing books.
As it turns out, the commercials vastly undersold what MTV unveiled to us in an extended two-hour pilot. This is a good show. It’s not perfect, and I could be that guy who nitpicks his way through a review but I won’t because there’s more than enough of that crap on the internet already. Instead, let me tell you what I liked.
First, I like that it’s not gritty. Save gritty for HBO or AMC. This is material written in the late 70s, inspired by epic, soaring, heroic fantasy. There will be hardship and pain aplenty, but we don’t need to see brutality, buckets of blood, and boobs. Of course, this is MTV, so we’ll get very close to the latter. That’s okay. I liked how they handled it. It could be messier, to be sure, and we’ll make fun of that aplenty, but it’s good that we’re not lopping off limbs and burning children at the stake.
Second, big props to the writers for getting to the point. Terry Brooks created the Four Lands with a deep and extensive history which you can see summarized in a genius opening credits sequence that raises tl/dr to art. The Shannara Chronicles takes place on Earth, our Earth, many thousands of years after we maniacs blew it up. Some humans survived and split along lines of mutation. into humans, gnomes, and trolls. Elves also exist in the world and they harbor the secret that they aren’t descendants from humanity’s past but an independent, magic-using race that has always been here. They’ve only acted like they’re a new race and subsumed their magical abilities so the other races don’t get scared of them and deliver an almighty beat-down.
That’s a lot of material to stuff into the beginning of a show and, to the writers’ credit, they didn’t even try. The credits handled the broad strokes. We’ll learn plenty of details as we go along, thanks to some deft writing.
We begin, not with the first book of the trilogy but the second, called The Elfstones of Shannara. Some pretty heavy things have gone down in the recent past, including a war and some pretty solid proof magic is on the comeback in the Four Lands. As in the real world, though, most folks have decided a magic-ignoring lifestyle is the best way to get through the day. The elves, believe it or not, are largely in that camp even though they live next to a giant psychic tree that protects the entire world from ravenous demons who would burn the Four Lands to ash. The family of the Elven King himself, who was involved in the heavy stuff that went down in the recent past, is no exception, even though the tree has used its psychic magic to speak to the King’s granddaughter, Amberle Elessedil. Unlike Tolkien’s elves, these elves are full of arrogance but not much wisdom.
To this we add a naive young man who wants nothing more than to be the best healer who ever strapped on a healing suit, or whatever healers wear (which seems to involve leather. Everyone wears leather in this show). His name is Wil Ohmsford, a half-elf and the son of another great hero of the heavy stuff that went down in the recent past. He knows nothing of his heritage. He also carries a powerful magic artifact and knows nothing about that either.
Then we toss in Eretria, a young Rover (think freelance wandering thief) who wants to prove her mettle so that her father doesn’t marry her off to the local Rover lout, who is appropriately muscled and clad in leather but who is also kind of gross-looking and possibly over 30. She needs a big score to prove to her father she can be a proper Rover. If only some naive young man would wander along her path bearing some unique and priceless item that he doesn’t know is unique and priceless…
Lastly, we have Allanon, the Last Druid. Druids are definitely not wizards no matter how enigmatically they speak, how opportunely they show up when needed, how vehemently they refuse to part with useful information no matter if that information would save a world of pain, nor how much magic they use. Druids truck in knowledge, especially knowledge of many centuries past when magic was more prevalent. NO THEY ARE NOT WIZARDS! Anyhow, Allanon was asleep for a while but now he’s awake and he’s come to the Elven kingdom because the magic psychic tree asked him to.
Everyone, save for the villains, are ridiculously attractive, clad in leather, and tousled only by the most expert professional touslers. I admit, it got distracting a time or three, but come on. It’s MTV. How can I gripe?
Take a look. Old Shannara.
Old Allanon. IGNORE THAT BEARD AND ROBE; HE IS TOTALLY NOT A WIZARD!
While I’m here, let’s talk casting. While I joke about the young and pretty cast, they’re solid. Poppy Drayton is Amberle, Ivana Baquero is Eretria, and Austin Butler is Wil. They each do a very good job of playing a bunch of late-teenagers just figuring out how to be grown-ups in a world that’s about to get extremely dangerous. Manu Bennett is a growling wonder as Allanon and John Rhys-Davis is…well, apparently there is some sort of law that he appears in any fantasy movie or television show. He is what you expect him to be: warm, wonderful, and professional.
The other star is the production crew. Their sets are lovely and evocative. They feel old without looking aged. The sweeping CGI vistas don’t look fake. In fact, there is a shot right at the beginning of the show that is downright breathtaking. We could do a bit less with establishing shots that fairly scream, “This used to be where we live!” but that’s a quibble. This is the Thundarr the Barbarian influence. I liked the wreckage of the old world used in new ways in that show and I like it here too.
Here, though, is something that could be a problem later. Remember that magic psychic tree? It’s called the Ellcrys and it’s dying. Amberle and Allanon know because it told them, but neither of them seem to be in much of a hurry to tell anyone else, for various reasons. As a result, we’re going to do some flailing about before everyone in our little traveling band get all the information they need. Normally, I’d bail out of the story at that point. I hate the senseless meandering caused by one character’s simple refusal to talk to another character. In this show, though, the meandering makes a certain amount of sense. The characters act appropriately, given who they are and what they know. Of course Amberle doesn’t tell anyone in the Elven court about her visions. She’s in a precarious enough position as it is and there’s a real danger they will think she’s either insane or ego-tripping. Wil doesn’t know about the Elfstones because his parents wanted to shelter him from danger. Eretria is greedy and manipulative because that’s how she’s been raised and she’s fighting for self-determination, so she’s a touch desperate here.
The only one whose reticence annoys me is Allanon. He’s lived for centuries and has seen the best and worst of man and Elvenkind. He is a shrewd judge of character, a master of magic, and a skilled instructor. Surely if anyone can hand out interesting information responsibly, it’s him, yet he doesn’t. If the writers stick with the big plot points of the book, he has one doozy of a secret up his sleeve that just might make the audience rage-quit the show. Just warning you.
I’m impressed. The writers did a great job trimming the expository fat and getting the characters in motion. We have all we need to know right now. The Ellcrys is dying, demons are free in the world, and our protagonists have the means to do something about it, though they don’t know what that is yet.
Good enough. I’m in. Let’s ride!