MTV's shiny new epic-fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles is adamantly not a comedy. It has the kind of grim-faced ultra-seriousness that so often makes genre films feel a little ridiculous, with characters declaiming instead of just talking. But there's still something a little chuckle-worthy about its setting, a world of elves, gnomes, and trolls who fervently believe magic doesn't exist. Some of the more opinionated ones get downright religious about it: after all, they say, while standing in front of the gigantic demon-banishing tree in their lofty elven sanctuary, what possible evidence is there of magic?
Unfortunately for them, magic is real, and it's about to kill them all if they don't get their pointy-eared act together.
The 10-episode series (premiering January 5th at 10PM ET) is based on Terry Brooks' 1982 The Elfstones Of Shannara, the second novel in an ongoing series now spanning more than 25 volumes. MTV is skipping the first book in the series, 1977's much-derided Lord Of The Rings pastiche Sword Of Shannara, to jump straight to a story aimed at the fandoms raised on the younger and more passionate protagonists of Twilight and the Harry Potter books. Chronicles deals with a fairly familiar-looking coming-of-age fantasy quest: a great evil threatens a magical land (sorry, magic deniers), and a few untested heroes have to find their courage and tap into their hidden abilities to stop it.
Multiple elvish dumptrucks of exposition
The first book in the series featured a band of adventurers using an ancient weapon to save the world from an evil warlock. In Shannara Chronicles, a collection of startlingly pretty young people take over the job of protecting the realm, teaching the old fogeys how adventuring is done. But Sword's legacy hangs heavily over them. Much as in the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the previous generation's fight against darkness has become a vague, semi-forgotten legend. But apparently that battle sucked most of the magic out of the world, ushering in a new age of skepticism and mundanity, or what passes for it in a sparkly fantasy realm.
How exactly that happened is unclear, even though there's multiple elvish dumptrucks of exposition. The backstory is complicated, but often sidelined so the narrative can charge ahead. What's important: The elves' magical protective tree, the Ellcrys, is dying. Lethal demons are slipping back into the world. To banish them again, someone must take the Ellcrys' magical seed to Safehold and bathe it in Bloodfire. Problem is, no one knows where Safehold is, or what Bloodfire might be. These requirements have the weight of prophecy and doom, but they're also faintly amusing, as though the elves lost their car keys centuries ago, and don't have the faintest idea where to look for them.
The four episodes of Shannara Chronicles MTV provided for review introduce many, many characters who are trying to help or hinder the quest to save the Ellcrys, and the Four Lands it protects. Centuries-old human druid Allanon (Arrow's Manu Bennett) is the series' only major character who's initially both familiar with magic and capable in a crisis. He attempts to guide Amberle (Poppy Drayton), a young elf receiving psychic instructions from the Ellcrys, and half-elf healer Wil Ohmsford (The Carrie Diaries' Austin Butler), who has inherited three powerful magical artifacts. Human bandit Eretria (Ivana Baquero, child star of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth) interferes with all of them, under orders from her brutal adoptive father. Together, these four form the classic Dungeons & Dragons questing party — fighter, magic user, cleric, and thief — though it's easy to miss that underlying bedrock, given the sheer number of largely irrelevant (and shockingly attractive) people elbowing their way into any given scene.
Pre-release publicity around Shannara Chronicles has regularly described it as MTV's attempt to seduce Game Of Thrones' viewership. Given Shannara's political intrigue and dense, sprawling cast, that connection seems logical enough. But Shannara's intrigue is exceedingly thin, and mostly consists of Amberle's grandfather, King Eventine (John Rhys-Davies), refusing to step down in favor of his petulant magic-denying son Arion. Shannara doesn't have Game Of Thrones' wearying brutality, but it also lacks characters with complicated morality and conflicting agendas. In Brooks' world, there are no shades of grey, just clear-cut good and evil. In a more nuanced story, Arion's concerns over his father's deceptions and his questionable allies might provoke some sympathy. Here, they're a dull, petty little evil on the edge of much more towering concerns.
A generation of young people resenting their parents' lies
And many of those concerns deal with Destiny. That word comes up every few minutes, especially for the younger characters, none of whom are invested in the roles forced on them. Their dissatisfaction is what binds them: Amberle tries to protect her kingdom by fleeing it, Wil wants to settle down and learn medicine, and Eretria is only hunting them to escape her faux-father Cephelo (James Remar, also a problematic dad on Dexter). Even the dedicated Allanon (whose name distractingly conjures up an entirely different kind of support group) mutters that being a druid isn't a choice, it's an enforced calling.
That seems like potentially rich symbolism for an MTV show: an entire generation of young people resenting the lies their parents fed them, and struggling to define their own lives and values. But Shannara Chronicles only seems to be playing with the reluctant-messiah trope for momentary tension. A few intense pep talks later, the party is on the road together, with a weary sense of duty hanging over their heads. The Force Awakens recently showed how exciting it can be when a new generation thrills at the excitement of playing out audience fantasies of ultra-competence and grand adventure. But Shannara goes in the opposite direction, with virtually all the lead characters dragging their feet as they're forced to fight evil. Frustration and resentment hang over the first four episodes, and it makes for a sour, sulky viewing experience.
Shannara Chronicles does have its strengths, largely in the elaborately realized visuals. Some lush early CGI establishes that this story takes place near a far-future, post-apocalyptic Seattle, with our familiar civilization decaying under moss and vines. But the series' real qualities come in the practical design, the gorgeous New Zealand settings, and the sense of a hefty, well-utilized production budget. Like Game Of Thrones and Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings films, Shannara suggests a whole new generation of blacksmiths, leatherworkers, and weavers have sprung up around the fantasy-epic boom, and this show certainly puts them through their paces. The costuming detail is exquisite. And the hair and makeup artists are certainly putting in overtime too, given how often the camera zooms in on flawless complexions and artfully tousled manes.
Like the cast, the show is startlingly beautiful, perhaps too beautiful to properly sell the meaty life-and-death conflict. Like so many recent young-adult movies — the Divergent series, The Giver, and The Host, for instance — Shannara Chronicles takes place in a strangely poreless universe of sharp visual contrast, vivid colors, and flat emotions.
The show is beautiful — perhaps too beautiful
What's in no short supply is Destiny — which quickly becomes a rote way of driving the plot forward, at the expense of natural character development. Four episodes in, most of the new plot reveals are coming from magical visions, which leave characters with nonsensical mandates that they don't question. There's so much passion in these characters, who just want to live their lives, but somehow they never question why they were lied to about magic, or whether each new plot direction makes any sense. Convenient leaps forward in time cover up some of the obvious conversational holes. (e.g. "Hey, why were you chained up and wearing a mask when we first met you, random stranger we've accepted into our party without question?") But Shannara repeatedly feels like it's relying on James Blish's Idiot Plot, where the characters only keep moving forward because they won't pause to ask logical questions, either of each other or of the situation.
So it's a simple relief whenever Shannara sets aside all the backstory and complaining, and gets down to action. By the end of the double-length pilot, the demons have started to be a real threat, and the series gets down to the core conflict between darkness and light, lifting the energy considerably. There are dramatic confrontations, fancy swordplay, and the kind of showy, yes-dammit-it-exists displays of magic that Game Of Thrones has only briefly teased over the course of five seasons. When the characters stop talking and start acting, Shannara becomes a simple thrill. But it's a long and winding quest to get there.