Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
In a television landscape increasingly marked by dramatic transformations, from Netflix’s unprecedented rise on the awards circuit to FX’s rebranding as a top-tier network, MTV has been fairly (and, not to beat around the bush, disappointingly) uniform in its expectations for scripted originals: consummately photogenic stars, dialogue specifically geared toward teen audiences, and soapy storytelling short on subtlety.
Unfortunately, those same network standards grate – agonizingly so – on The Shannara Chronicles, MTV’s latest and most ambitious series to date. Adapted from the bestselling high fantasy novels by Terry Brooks, the show aims to occupy the middle ground between The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, spinning a fantastical yarn full of elves, demons, ancient sorcerers and magical prophecy. But instead, its jarringly anachronistic writing and overly glossy execution, clearly designed to appeal to teen audiences, leaves it stranded somewhere far closer to those series’ unsavory derivatives.
Like Legend of the Seeker and Marco Polo (among others) before it, The Shannara Chronicles offers up a glimmer of a promising premise, only to bury it beneath howlingly bad dialogue, mediocre acting, shoddy CGI and – perhaps most crushingly – a complete dearth of originality. Even though it had a wealth of literary source material to draw upon, the series feels dismayingly generic from top to bottom, and that’s in large part what leaves it dead in the water.
The problems start with heroine Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton), an Elven princess with shades of Arwen and Arya, whose rebellious spirit compels her to compete in a dangerous, boys-only obstacle course called the Gauntlet (think a forest-set Dauntless initiation – the writers clearly were). When Amberle not only completes but places highly in that competition, she finds herself inducted into
The Night’s Watch The Chosen, an Elven elite tasked with guarding a magical tree called Yggdrasil/The Tree of Souls/the Ellcrys, which is fabled for keeping an ancient race of demons at bay for centuries.
Though Drayton is resolutely solid in the role of the plucky, self-possessed heroine – and certainly looks the part – Amberle’s such an amalgama of pre-existing characters that her entire series arc can be pretty accurately predicted within the show’s first hour. The Shannara Chronicles is dependent on viewers being able to invest in Amberle’s struggles, but nothing about her is original, interesting or even likable enough to really engage.
The other leads don’t fare much better. Elf-human hybrid Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler) is basically a hunkier version of Frodo Baggins, all guileless charm, rippling muscles and puppy-dog expressions. Like seemingly all male leads in these high fantasy series, he’s a kindly orphan with a much-touted destiny (using his hereditary powers as a descendant of the powerful Shannara clan to combat demons) and a secret weapon (three blue “Elfstones”) that gives him control over magic.
Rounding out the lead three is human Eretria (Ivana Baquero), a
Wildling “rover” who steals to survive until she crosses paths with Wil and Amberle. Played by Baquero as an out-and-out Ygritte clone, she even goes so far as to hiss “You know nothing” when someone who criticizes her scavenger lifestyle. (Any Thrones scribe watching will likely be too bemused by the idiocy of this show’s writing to get angry about how familiar some exchanges will seem.)
Excessive familiarity extends well past those three protagonists – when they’re brought together, alternately by chance encounters and the machinations of the wise and capable druid
Merlin/Gandalf/Allanon (Manu Bennett), it’s for that most tried-and-true of fantasy narrative devices: an all-important quest to save the world. (Side note: though it’s called The Four Lands, the aforementioned world is actually a future Earth, centuries after a chemical and nuclear holocaust wiped out civilization and technology. Oddly, this is far from a crucial part of the show – there’s one scene where Wil and Eretria come across the remnants of a chopper, but it’s brief and has no bearing on the plot whatsoever.)
As explained at length by Allanon – and living exposition dump King Eventine (John Rhys-Davies, hamming it up) – The Four Lands are suddenly imperilled when the Ellcrys is revealed to be dying, weakening the barrier that prevents demons from arriving and tearing the far less warlike elves and humans to pieces. Luckily, there’s still hope – Amberle, singled out by the Ellcrys via some disturbing flashforwards, must carry its seed to a fountain called the Bloodfire, where the Ellcrys can be reborn and once again protect The Four Lands. Wil and Eretria both show up in Amberle’s visions of the future and so are tasked with accompanying her.
It’s clear very, very early on that The Shannara Chronicles is heading in the direction of a quest narrative, but the series takes its time getting there, instead throwing into the mix an all-too-predictable (and unwarranted) love triangle, lethal demonic creatures that either fly (called Furies) or shapeshift (called Changelings), and a secondary conflict with Eretria’s cutthroat rover family. Later episodes feel more fluid and natural than others in terms of their plotting, but all the setup in the sprawling pilot is unbearable, given how many different characters and plots it abruptly shifts between without any inkling of rhythm.
What doesn’t improve over the course of The Shannara Chronicles is its writing, which feels about on target for a typical MTV series but catastrophically misjudged for a high fantasy epic like this. The characters’ repeated use of modern slang (like, in one particularly cringeworthy scene, “sloppy seconds”) isn’t just lazy but also painfully incompatible with the fantastical visuals and story.
Every time a character opens their mouth for some tin-eared quip that wouldn’t be out of place on a soapy drama like Gossip Girl, it knee-caps the rest of the storytelling. And wherever the dialogue isn’t weirdly contemporary, it’s frustratingly clunky. Especially emanating from actors who lack all but the most basic of emotional ranges, some of this stuff is so leaden it weighs down everything else on screen.
The series also suffers from genre confusion, taking half-hearted stabs at political intrigue with an extraneous subplot involving Eventine and Prince Ander (Aaron Jakubenko), and elsewhere overplaying romantic tensions between Wil, Eretria and Amberle. MTV doesn’t seem willing to part with the same suds in which most of its other dramatic originals are slathered, but for something like Shannara to work, it needs both a fully supportive network and writers that can do justice to its sprawling, mythology-laden story. In in its current form, Shannara doesn’t really work on any level besides perhaps a visual one (the New Zealand sets are beautiful as ever). Fantasy fans looking for a Thrones-like fix until that series returns later in 2016 will be disappointed, to put it lightly.
It should be said that the series is not without hope – Teen Wolf overcame a fairly terrible first season rife with poor performances and ill-conceived story arcs to eventually evolve into a tightly written, action-packed guilty pleasure. The Shannara Chronicles could undergo a similar metamorphosis, and in the process discover some magic of its own. But until such time as that happens, MTV’s latest dramatic quest is off to a disheartening start.
Whatever visual beauty this pretender to Game of Thrones' high fantasy throne does possess is undone by wooden performances, formulaic execution and dialogue so howlingly bad it resembles subpar fan fiction.