We are seeing more and more science fiction and fantasy on both the big and slightly smaller screens these days. Finally studios have acknowledged the audience for genre work – but is that really such a good thing? The flood of new SFF shows includes plenty of awful content, shows that have undercooked world building, uni-dimensional characters, and exposition-heavy, clunky dialogue that makes us cringe. And now that the audience is there, clamoring to every new nod to the genres they love, these shows (and films) continue on, despite the lower quality.
The Shannara Chronicles is the latest series, produced by MTV, to cash in on the popularity of SFF on television. Attempting to recreate the success of HBO’s monster hit Game of Thrones, MTV looked to Terry Brooks’ series that’s been running since 1977. I’m not sure true epic fantasy would ever work on television – the plots don’t lend themselves to the open ended nature of sprawling TV – but Brooks’ series certainly falls flat. It is so standard and trope-heavy it could be used to define the epic fantasy genre as a whole. Like most television SFF, the CG is appalling. But if you can move past all that, it’s actually quite fun; the kind of stupid guilty pleasure perfect for watching while slumping on the sofa after a long day at work.
Epic fantasy at its most ordinary
The trouble with the series seems to come mostly from its source material. The characters and plot set-up are so completely standard for the genre it feels almost like a joke. Perhaps this would have been fine in the 70s and 80s, while the genre was still finding its feet and its devoted audience, but it doesn’t do much to intrigue audiences these days. As Rob Bricken over at io9 points out, the series is one giant predictable fantasy trope:
A seemingly normal farm boy with a secret heritage? Check. Strong-willed princess? Check. Older mentor who represents the last of a heroic order? Check. A monstrous bad guy set on destroying the world? Check. A magic item that can stop the bad guy, that only the farm boy can use? Big check.
The series opens with feisty Elvin princess Amberle (Poppy Drayton) becoming one of the ‘chosen’ to protect the great Ellcrys tree, a right previously only given to men. When she touches the fabled tree, an ancient barrier protecting the world from demons, she begins to have frightening visions of the future and is convinced that it is her fault (patriarchal guilt much?!). Meanwhile in a rustic village in the middle of nowhere, half-caste elf/human Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler) is given a bag of ‘Elf stones’ by his mother on her death bed. He doesn’t believe in magic until the last of the Druids, Allanon (Manu Bennett), tracks Wil down and talks – at length – of destiny. Joined by trained thief Eritrea (Ivana Baquero), the three young people must save the world from the rise of the demons.
Likeable, silly charm
I might be almost 30, but I still appreciate a good view – in other words, I’m still as boy crazy as I was when I was 13. And The Shannara Chronicles delivers excellent views all round. Austin Butler, despite his fairly ordinary all-American good looks, is charming (I fell for him back in Life Unexpected, so very happy to see him again). He carries off the naïve, untrained, farm-boy-with-a-destiny routine well. Helping him out with the good looks are Daniel MacPherson (the only reason you would ever catch me watching Neighbours), Manu Bennett (or Maori and Iranian descent, embracing his natural Kiwi/Aussie accent with added growl), Marcus Vanco (poor tortured soul), and Aaron Jakubenko (the playboy prince). Honestly, any show with that amount of… ah… talent, is alright in my book.
Wait, you wanted a review on the quality of the content from a writing and production standpoint? Oh, alright…
If you come to The Shannara Chronicles expecting anything other than silly, ridiculous writing, I have to worry about you. The show is on MTV after all, hardly a network known for its quality, scripted television. Having said that, the series isn’t as bad as you might expect (if you embrace the melodrama). Sure, it is ridiculous and over the top, but it also knows how to have a laugh at itself and usually in a way that would appear to a younger audience that would be MTV’s core viewership. There are tongue in cheek sexual references and gratuitous skin-heavy shots that are openly flagged as being such. While the fight against good and evil might be very serious and full of men using their most gravelly voices, the show does understand that it is silly – which is what makes it watchable entertainment.
My main complaint about the series is that there is seemingly more in the source material that could be mined to make for a better story. There are a lot of politics at play that we don’t get much insight into including race wars. The world Brooks created is set after the collapse of the human civilisation (aka us in the real world) and the world of the Four Lands we see in the show grew out of the ashes of the previous world. We see glimpses of this in ruins of satellite dishes and overgrown husks of ancient cars, but that’s it. Then again, if it did delve into the more real-world issues it would potentially lose its silly charm and instead sit awkwardly in a taking-itself-too-seriously landscape of other SFF shows that do everything else much better.
‘Well, you should know that the struggle was mutual and lasted about an hour.’
The Shannara Chronicles is not a series about keeping us on the edge of our seats. The plot is so predictable any casual fantasy fan could see where it was headed. Nor is the writing, dialogue, or even acting worthy of accolades. What makes the show enjoyable is instead its embracing of its guilty pleasure status. It’s stupid, melodramatic, predictable, and has plenty of rubbish TV production values more appropriate in the 90s, but hell, it’s fast-paced and good fun.
Verdict: Certainly not a quality TV show, but enjoyable regardless, that is, as long as you enjoy OTT teen melodrama with a bit of magic thrown in.