Elves. Druids. Magical stones. Evil demons. No, this isn’t your weekly D&D club. This one is actually on TV.
If I can show my own cards for a moment, I have every reason for wanting The Shannara Chronicles to succeed. For far too long, our options when it comes to epic fantasy has either been the practically pornographic Game of Thrones or the long line of horribly failed fantasy films like Eragon. Both options are horrid. For that reason, even that reason alone, I wanted this show to succeed.
Whether or not it truly succeeds depends to a certain extent on what you expect from the show. The show’s production value is certainly high. The cast is deeply embedded with rich talent. John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) appears as the elven king. Ivana Banquero (Pan’s Labyrinth) is all grown up as arguably the most compelling part of the show’s young cast. Manu Bennett (Arrow) is stellar as the mentor character. The cinematography and effects are some of the best I’ve seen for a TV outing. The plot and pacing are, at the very least, minimally distracting if not actually well-written.
The world development cannot, however, be described in as laudable of terms. The basic premise of the show is that the elves have a magic tree that keeps demons from entering their world. The tree is dying and an elven princess is the only one who can save the tree and thus, save the world (or the four lands, in this story). Also integral to the story is a half-elf who, unknown to him at first, comes from a long line of magic-wielding kings, and is destined to protect the aforementioned princess while she saves the world.
None of this is particularly new to the fantasy genre. Archetypes abound with little deviation, from the elderly tutor in magic to the peasant-turned-chosen-one to the “magic has consequences” lecture, it is very much cut from the same cloth as any other epic fantasy. Even the demons and those on the side of the demons are glorified orcs. The term demon appears to have no theological significance whatsoever, and thus plays the same part of evil creatures that are always in these stories.
These facts in and of themselves aren’t necessarily problematic. Many stories employ the archetypes of their genres with little variation and still retain good entertainment value. There’s more to be had here than simple archetypes as well. Eretria (Ivana Banquero’s character) is a more complex character than first meets the eye. Wil’s part is played well enough that you almost forget how typical it is. The only significant problem in this regard is that the culture and society of the elves is so under-developed that they really just appear to be humans with pointed ears, and I’m left wondering why I’m supposed to care.
The bigger problem in regards to world building is a writing one. The show’s script throws around terms, names, and other concepts early in the show before establishing what exactly it is that they’re talking about. It expects the audience to be thrown into the world and the world’s culture full immersion style, which works well for learning a language but not so much for sticking with a show. Fantasy nerds will stick with it and pick it up, but they’ll likely lose more casual viewers along the way.
All things said however, in terms of writing, development, and execution, the show is extremely promising. As I mentioned before, demons appear to bear no theological significance. So far, the show seems to avoid any type of theology altogether, which is more thankful for than not, seeing how lack of a theology tends to go better than what would likely be a horribly flawed one. The main characters value heroism, sacrifice, and all of the other typical fantasy hero traits. So even among the occasional talk of destiny, there’s very little in the worldview of the show to cause Christians discomfort.
Lest the show be accused of being too mild, mind you, there are a few things to be wary of. Swearing is very minimal, but the series does occasionally insert some sex appeal. In the first two-part episode, one male character is shown taking a bath from the waist up. What follows is what we’re led to believe will be a seduction scene, though it cuts short before anything happens. Later, a woman is shown bathing at a waterfall, first from a distance and then closer up from behind. Nudity in these cases is partial and brief, and kept at a ‘PG-13’ level. It should be noted at this point that apart from these instances, wardrobe choices are for the most part not problematic.
It is slightly concerning for me, especially seeing that it’s MTV that’s hosting this show, that they’re flirting with elements of sexual content. I’m further afraid that one or both of the female leads will end up serving a role that is mostly that of eye candy. That would be a shame, not only because it would place a moral blemish upon an otherwise fun and enjoyable show, but also because both of these actresses play their parts quite well, and are worthy of being treated like real people that don’t need to be objectified in order for their existence on the show to be justified.
But it might be too early to jump to that conclusion. The content being what it is right here and right now, I feel comfortable saying that this could be a show worth spending your time with.
Consensus: 8/10. The show is hardly perfect, but is absolutely fun, and a great alternative to the sex-infused fantasy, both in TV and in video games, that has far too quickly become the norm.