Everything ancient is new again on The Shannara Chronicles, which caters to a very specific audience and is cut from a similar cloth as many other stories of its kind – though neither of those things makes it bad. In fact, the fantasy series, which airs on MTV (of all places!) and is an adaptation of the mildly enjoyable (but mostly forgettable) Shannara novels written by Terry Brooks, is far better than it has any right to be.
A quick refresher in Shannara backstory: this series (or at least its first season) is somewhat loosely based on The Elfstones of Shannara, which is actually the second book in the series (over 26 novels have been written since then); the first book, The Sword of Shannara, was thought by many to be too similar to The Lord of the Rings, and in many ways, it was, so it was wise to start with Elfstones. Though these were far from being my favorite fantasy stories, I certainly liked them well enough, and was rather concerned when I learned what network this show would be premiering on. Let me say that, in my opinion anyway, this is the first good program – perhaps the only one – that has aired on this channel in years.
The first thing that surprises you is that the showrunners actually put some real soul into this adaptation; their dedication is easy to see in the brilliant cinematography, to which the New Zealand filming location lends itself wonderfully. It also has an excellent cast that includes Manu Bennet (Arrow, Spartacus) and John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Sliders). But, of course, there are the newcomers to consider, who play the three main characters, the half-elf Wil (Austin Butler), elven girl Amberle (Poppy Drayton), and human thief Eretria (Ivanna Baquero). The best of the three seems to be Drayton, who gives a surprisingly nuanced performance and puts a really interesting spin on a character that, in the books, came off as a rather one-note, doe-eyed caricature.
There are, of course, drawbacks to the show. I refer to the parts where MTV’s fingerprints are most prevalent: on the script. Firstly, the writers decide to have the characters talk in a really modern style, which is okay because Shannara is actually set thousands of years in the future, despite being a magic-based fantasy. However, this becomes really awkward when the network gets too heavy-handed in their effort to market the show to people in their early twenties, and we end up having characters utter Urban Dictionary-esque phrases and Millennial-isms that are so misplaced even the actors seem embarrassed to say them. That’s the first issue. The second is that there is an undercurrent of soap opera melodrama that weaves in and out of episodes, which just shows you that MTV is trying to maintain the same viewer base that watches its other, more vapid shows, while also catering to the Game of Thrones crowd.
Those two problems aside, the other ways in which The Shannara Chronicles deviates from its source material are more understandable. Where Elfstones had the flaw of patronizing its female characters and/or pushing them to the sidelines, this show places them front and center, and gives them something to do. There’s also a heavier presence of sex and violence here than in the books (though not enough to prevent the series from being referred to as “Game of Thrones Lite”). Some of it does feel gratuitous, but because the series itself is really just a straightforward, fun ride that doesn’t try and philosophize or make itself “socially relevant,” it can be enjoyed for the good old-fashioned escapism that it is.
And it’s true; in many ways, this is no Game of Thrones. Our characters are having just a bit too much fun; looking far too clean and good for the camera as they traipse across the colorful, vivid landscape. And the modern electronic music will probably pull in part of the audience its channel is looking for, while quickly wearing out its welcome with many fantasy aficionados. But within the great, growing expanse of TV shows, and especially on this network, The Shannara Chronicles is something quite exciting and refreshing.
It’s definitely an old concept based on an old book, offering little that’s truly groundbreaking. But there’s a subtle difference between this series and some of its peers: in fantasy terms, rather than rehashing timeworn clichés, this show’s method is more akin to taking an old antique that’s been in the family for generations, fixing it up, and handing it over, clean and polished, to the next generation. A little ostentatious, for sure – but it’s got sentimental value.
Photo: Shannara Chronicles website