In Defense Of MTV’s Ludicrous, Cheesy, Brilliant Mess: The Shannara Chronicles
I like bad TV. It goes back to the sweltering summers of my childhood where my sister and I were relegated to indoor activities due to parental fear of child-onset, hyperactive spontaneous combustion (and, I guess, a harsh overexposure to the Louisiana sun). We’d marathon TLC’s Trading Spaces and, during commercials, check in on whatever the hell the Zoogs were doing on The Disney Channel. I was barely out of the single digit age bracket, so I had a pretty good excuse for believing that Paige Davis was the cornerstone of television comedy.
I’m older now, but I still believe that everyone’s allowed their own lizard-brain entertainment — the thing that shuts out the world and generates a feeling similar to having your prefrontal cortex scooped out and swathed into a custom-built version of one of those obnoxious massaging chairs from Brookstone. The thing that you know is bad and can’t help but love. The thing that you plan on growing out of any day now.
Mine just so happens to be amorous teenage fantasy serials. And MTV’s gloriously unashamed new show The Shannara Chronicles is knocking me into a near-catatonic state every week. Ahead of tonight’s finale, “Ellcrys,” I’ve decided to expound on the little I’ve said about the show so far. As of writing, the series is split down the middle in terms of critical reaction. Given that the show has inventive splendor to be discovered deep behind the MTV, pin-up sheen of its stars, that makes sense.
WGTC’s own Isaac Feldberg believed the series’ generic nature overshadowed essentially all potential for The Shannara Chronicles to appear distinct from the pack of fantasy flocking to television following the all-things-Westeros zeitgeist. Considering the show’s central plot — a trio of heroes are out to stop an evil menace by carrying a thing to a place to save another thing — that’s a fair argument.
But let me make one thing clear: I’m not arguing that The Shannara Chronicles is quality TV. I’m arguing that it is quality bad TV. That distinction is important. Take, for example, a similar fantasy series that began around the same time, earlier in January: Shadowhunters. Freeform’s new take on Cassandra Clare’s formulaic-yet-energetic series of books is everything bad TV shouldn’t be: resoundingly dull. The characters don’t work, the acting is detached at best and there-is-no-adjective-for-how-bad-it-is at worst, and the amusing leaps in logic turn even the most simplistic elements of the book into byzantine, perplexing nightmare corridors of never-ending exposition dumps. I couldn’t delete the season pass from my DVR fast enough.
The Shannara Chronicles is the inverse of Shadowhunters, and a lot of that starts where the latter is arguably most egregious: its special effects. The Shannara Chronicles – and I say this knowing I’m approximately the one millionth person on the internet to use the platitude – feels like a movie on the small screen. The vivid look of the show is probably the first and biggest reason to celebrate it: there’s a steady vibrancy to each location that proves the slick, bold production behind another MTV show, Teen Wolf, was no fluke. Creature effects occasionally stumble, but the long, sweeping shots of the world’s seemingly sentient, encroaching nature are awe-inspiring. When some demonic foe gets plastered against the backdrop of its dilapidated 21st century skyscrapers, it’s like the raddest screensaver from DeviantArt has come alive.
Those anachronisms fuel the creativity of The Four Lands – the show’s setting – with logical boundaries that make the entry into its borders repeatedly satisfying. Following some event rudimentarily referred to as “The Great Wars,” the Earth was ravaged, and in its mythical wake arose mutated races that were named after humanity’s original obsession with fairy tales: elves, trolls, dwarves, gnomes, etc. Elves reside in Arborlon (somewhere near Seattle, Washington), and the thrust of the first season has been a journey south to Safehold (San Francisco), where the elven princess Amberle has to bring a seed of the dying Ellcrys to something called the “Bloodfire” and, somehow, save the universe from destruction.