'The Shannara Chronicles' Review: Are Humans Hotter than Elves or Nah?
There’s something to be said for a palate-cleansing show.
To wit: I was coming off a back-to-back viewing of Big Little Lies (which was great) and A Handmaid’s Tale (which was astounding) and I really needed a hit of creme fraiche.
Enter The Shannara Chronicles. A show so slight that you barely know it’s there. Based on a series of books by Terry Brooks, Shannara means different things to different people. Some people love the story. Others suggest Brooks ‘borrowed too liberally’ from Tolkien. Some people adore the world. Others maintain that it’s just a loose conglomeration of all the fantasy labels that everyone knows: words like ‘changeling’ and ‘troll’ and ‘demon’. There are acolytes and detractors and none of that really means a damn thing if you haven’t read the books.
Which I haven’t.
So I went in to season one fresh, eyes blinking, born into a new world.
The day I started the series I had lunch with a friend who is a die hard fantasy buff, waaaaay more than I am, who’s subscribed to Locus for like 30 years and waxes poetic about the good ol’ Charles N. Brown days and I was like:
“Hey I’m gonna watch Shannara tonight.”
“Why the fuck would you do that?”
“I don’t know? Something light and airy?”
“Ugh. Dreck. Terry Brooks’ writing is dreck. The show is dreck. Dreck in dreck out. He was a hack who some people called the ‘American Tolkien’ way back when but he was always just beat-for-beat ripping off LOTR and not even doing it well. It’s amazing to me that they made a series out of that shitty book.”
So there is that contingent out there. I certainly understand that side of it. But here’s the thing:
I love fantasy.
So right away, finding out there was another fantasy show on TV immediately made it a must-watch. I went in with an open mind and a willing heart, ready to be dazzled by even the smallest scintilla of competence in a genre I adore. And yes, I know in the strictest sense, it’s not necessarily true fantasy. It’s post-apocalyptic with sci-fi elements. Whatevs. If my opinionated friend couldn’t put me off the scent, some minor genre distinction isn’t going to, either.
Season One came from the brilliant fantasy minds over at MTV, which is to say that I was prepared to keep any lofty expectations in check. MTV making fantasy feels a bit like Tarantino writing an episode of the Great British Baking Show. It’s not exactly Emma and Mr. Knightley.
We open with a sweeping CG drone cam shot. It’s a lush world. Post apocalyptic, buildings reclaimed by moss. If you hate CG, maybe that’s not the ideal open. But I don’t mind it and it’s cold in Boston.
So far so good.
We pass over a gorgeous city on a hill, sort of the gardens of Versailles meets Rivendell. As we push away to the forest beyond, a throbbing music amps up. Something is happening in the forest below. Action.
Okay. Good. Way to get me invested right away.
We cut to it. It’s dark. A girl is running through the forest. Blindfolded. Hands bound behind her. A man is pursuing her on foot. She narrowly misses several concussions from low branches, but as she darts and dodges, a long trench appears before her in the forest floor. But she can’t see it obviously because of the blindfold. She tries to time a jump…buuuuuuuuuut is too late and she tumbles to the bottom of the ditch. Her head smacks against the forest floor.
She’s done for. Her pursuer will be on her in a second. Goddamn I’m not ready to watch anymore heinous shit, man! I thought this was like a cute teeny bopper romp. Why does everything have to be so vicious? Goddamnit!
SPOILERS FOR SHANNARA SEASON ONE KINDA SORTA START HERE. If you’re going to watch then Fly, you fools!
The man stops above the downed girl and calls out.
“Amberle, you still alive?”
And the girl smiles.
“Relax, Uncle Ander. It’s not like I’m gonna break.”
Whew. Okay. Thank goodness.
This is Amberle Elessedil, princess of the elven stronghold of Arborlon, and she’s training to take part in a sacred ritual usually reserved for men only. (You see ‘Elessedil’ and right away you know that Brooks was a thieving thief who thieved.)
So begins The Shannara Chronicles. With a princess who refuses to be caged. That got my attention right away.
A word about the names in Shannara. I kind of hate them. I’m not sure I like the word Shanarra in and of itself, but as the show goes on, it’s used as a noun more and more…and blech. Of course, when Terry Brooks wrote character names like Eritrea, I’m sure he never planned on them having to be said aloud. Over and over again. In the real world, someone with a four syllable name gets a nickname from her pals, just out of necessity. How could Brooks know that, for example, a name like ‘Allanon’ would, to some, just sound like the truncated version of Alcoholics Anonymous said over and over and over and over again? He couldn’t. Also, you have lots of names that change based on the nationality of the actor. When an American says “Amberle” it sounds like “Am-burr-lee.” When one of the Kiwis says it, it’s “Ihm-bah-lay.” It’s not a major issue, but it took me out of it a couple times.
A word about the casting. The actors are, by and large, fucking gorgeous. Take a gander at these beauties:
Poppy Drayton as Amberle
Ivana Baquero as Eritrea
(You may remember her as the little girl from Pan’s Labyrinth)
Austin Butler as Wil Ohmsford
Aaron Jakubenko as Ander Elessedil
Daniel MacPherson as Arion Elessedil
Brooke Williams as Catania
Emilia Burns as Commander Tilton
And Manu Bennett as Allanon
(You may know him as Crixius from Spartacus)
Those are more or less the key players. And to a person, they’re eye candy. Can they act? Ehhhhhhhhhhhhh. I’m waffling my hand to and fro. Some better than others. It’s honestly hard to tell because there’s not a ton for them to work with here. Season one and two totalled twenty episodes and I never once thought “ooooh that’s a great line.” More often, I’d wince at the material these actors had to work with.
That said, veterans like John Rhys-Davies and James Remar only highlighted the uneven acting, but again: it’s MTV. You’ve got a fantasy series where the lead character says “what’s up?” a lot.
The thing I will say is that the actors drew me in because they gave it their all. That earnestness really helped. Usually it wouldn’t, I think. But their love of the material really translated. I watched every single interview I could find, with all of them, and they were always utterly charming. Thrilled by the subject material. Thrilled by the job they won and the adventure and the scope, and that really made me root for them. Interviews like this:
I find them both so bright eyed and likable.
I also borrowed the three-disc set from my local library just to see if there was anything cool in the behind-the-scenes stuff. There wasn’t. It was just more lovely, kind, earnest people speaking with Flight of the Conchords accents and talking about how neat it was to make the prop version of the Codex of Paranor.
Season One was a real mixed bag. Lady C will often work next to me on her laptop while I’m watching something and several times during this show she just glanced over at me and shook her head.
But I enjoyed it. I did.
Season One is the story of the Elcrys. Pronounced ell-KREASE. They say Elcrys like four thousand times. If you did an Elcrys drinking game you’d be dead before ep 3. The Elcrys is a magical tree that’s dying. That’s not good because it’s the only thing holding back The Dagda Mor. He’s a stupid asshole with a shitload of speed metal rings in his face.
Every time a leaf falls from the Elcrys, the leaf burns up and the world farts a new demon. Or something.
The Dagda Mor is basically just this malevolent butthole standing in the middle of a rock henge all day, every day in the hot sun just begging for a case of hard core melanoma and for the last leaf to fall so he can attack.
The only way for the demons to be defeated and sent back to hell is to repair the Elcrys. And of course that task falls to a couple of teens in renfair garb that never ever ever gets dirty.
That’s the kind of show this is. Some people are like “it gives Game of Thrones a run for its money.” Yah. No.
But it can be enjoyable if you just let it be what it is and not ask too much of it. If you understand that the lead character has the keen geopolitical savvy of an amateur surfer? You won’t go in expecting too much.
The good from Season One:
Hotness. There’s a lot of truly attractive people to gaze at.
Even some of the demons are hot!
Magic. You get to see some magic. Blue magic even!
John Rhys-Davies. His diction is unassailable.
The sets are surprisingly decent.
The post apocalyptic stuff. It’s done better in like a hundred different novels, but it’s always fun to see the carcases of ancient helicopters and shit.
Swords. Everything’s better when there are swords.
Lightness. For the most part, the show tries to ramp up the stakes but doesn’t take itself too seriously while doing it.
Demons. Some of the demons are cool.
Druid stuff. Who isn’t game for runes and incantations and things like that?
Elf ears. Which have a lot more attitude than your standard elven peak.
The not-so good from Season One:
Predictability. You can see everything coming a mile away.
Gnomes. I have no idea what batshit crazy idiot designed the Gnome’s faces but they’re stomach turning to look at. Their lips are like prolapsed anuses. And they’re usually moist as well. I had to really search to find a non-moist gnome lip so you wouldn’t toss your cookies. Fucking G-ross.
Allanon. This dude went 19 episodes before he cracked a smile. It’s not all the actor’s fault, either. He’s just this joyless Steak Pie Gandalf. Everyone he mentors hates his fucking guts. And he lies to everyone and then justifies it later on like “oh sorry I had to save the world.” Eat shit.
Dumbness. The lead characters know nothing, prepare for nothing, see nothing coming and still somehow win. They’re never once ahead of the bad guys.
Whining. There’s a decent amount of it.
Bandon. There’s a super shitty character named Bandon. Which is just, like, Brandon. But with no R.
We make it to the end of the season but we have to say goodbye to a key character in order for the ring-faced butthole to be drug back to hell. It’s bittersweet.
But then, like two days ago, Shannara Season Two pops up on Netflix. Huzzah! I watched it right away. Lady C was nonplussed.
“This again? Really?” She asked.
“Yep!” I said with a HUGE smile.
I am a boy. A dumb, dumb boy.
In season two we get a few fresh, new faces.
Malese Jow as Mareth Ravenlock
Vanessa Morgan as Lyria
Gentry White as Garet Jax
And Desmond Chiam as General Riga
Season Two has moved from the carnal hotbox that is MTV to the testosterone-rich vas deferens known as Spike TV. Which I think is now defunct (as of January 18th) after all of Paramount’s TV properties were basically defunded to shift everything under their new Paramount Network banner. Paramount Net aims to go toe-to-toe with big dogs like Netflix and HBO. I wondered if the move would affect Shannara at all and there did seem to be a noticeable step down in the production design department. Much more CGI and much smaller scale and detail with the sets.
SEASON TWO SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!!! FLY AWAY FRAIL LITTLE MAGPIES!
As season two opens the gang is all apart. Eritrea has gone from being in love with Wil to being in love with a hot new girl! Those darned rovers are such ravenous omniphiles.
Everything is going swimmingly for her and new main squeeze Lyria when she gets an urgent message from Amberle that Wil is in trouble and a new darkness is coming.
DUN DUN DUH!
That new darkness? Fucking BANDON. OH CHRIST! Maybe he’s looking for his R!
No. No such luck.
Bandon is now like a super sorcerer. He makes himself a few Nazgul to be his minions. He magically gives one of them snake eyes! Then he’s like FLY AWAY AND FIND SHIT. They all death eater away in smoke trails — like exact death eater smoke — and start doing good minion work. Bandon can’t fly, but he can give others the power to fly. What a righteous dude. His mission is to find the various
horcruxes parts of a defeated Warlock Lord and bring him back to life. Nothing sums up Shannara better than the fact that like three different people were like “yo, you don’t want to resurrect that Warlock Lord, Bandon.” And he was like “YAWR I DO” and then like six minutes after he inevitably does bring back the Warlock Lord he’s like “waahhhh you’re nothing like what I expected. I can’t believe the others were right! You’re a real penis!”
I’m not saying that Bandon is my least favorite character of the last quarter century, but he might be.
This season we don’t spend any time in the Elven land of Arborlon. Instead, we’re in the human city of Leah, which is built on the edge of a dam.
And once again, the world needs Wil to save it again. THIS SHIT AIN’T GONNA SAVE ITSELF WIL.
Season Two was probably better than season one, though, because of a couple of new actors. Malese Jow can actually act! Hooray!
And Wil got a haircut and tried to go to college before failing out. This is him, freshly shorn, in his healer robes.
Then he saved the world. He couldn’t perform a routine bypass surgery but he’s the chosen one because he’s white and a boy. Duh.
Eritrea turns evil and kills a lot of good guys. But everyone forgives her. Because she didn’t mean to.
Just as Allanon, the most one-note character on the show, begins to finally wane, they reanimate the Warlock Lord in his image. So we get to see not one but two Allanons. Except the other one looks like this and sometimes growls and bares his teeth.
Wanna know if you’re a Shannara bad guy? Check your face FOR RINGS.
The best new character on the show is General Riga, who is basically a disgruntled elven commander intent on removing all magic from the world. His methods are machiavellian but they work! And he’s done his homework. He has secret alliances all over the place and and has a cool fucked up blue eye. And he too, can act. Huzzah! I was like “damn this is my boy!” Because he actually made sense as a character and then you realize that he’s basically a war criminal. D’oh! That’s a real demerit for a show when the most compelling character is an ethnic cleanser. His superpower is that he’s immune to magic. So when people like Wil and Allanon fire beams of magic at him it does nothing.
Just when it looks like General Riga is unbeatable, he goes up against the Warlock Lord and is like “you can’t hurt me! I’m impervious to magic!”
And then rather than shoot magic at him, the Warlock Lord smartly uses magic on objects nearby like barbed wire to wrap General Riga up. Then he tears his fucking head off. LITERALLY.
Sometimes I’m like, does this show know what it is? The head had like all kinds of bloody tendons and shit hanging from it and it’s like NO! NO NO NO. People on this show need to die like Stormtroopers or bad guys on The A-Team. Just fall over and go ow! Every once in a while there’d be some graphic violence that had no business in this world.
There’s another scene where Bandon and Allanon are trapped in a magical cell. But Wil’s favorite uncle is dying because Bandon stabbed him with a Morgul blade, basically.
So Bandon is like “Wil, get me the skull of the Warlock Lord and I’ll cure your uncle (who I stabbed).” Allanon’s like DON’T DO IT! It takes a Shannara and a Druid to recover the skull, which is literally HIDDEN IN THE PAST.
The skull is basically the last horcrux Bandon needs to reanimate Sauron. He cannot, in any way, get it himself. He needs a druid and a Shannara. There’s exactly one Shannara and three druids in the world. And Wil’s uncle is like 74. His uncle is like “don’t worry just let me die.” And the druid with Wil, Mareth, who has a crush on Wil because he’s dreamy is like “I don’t know, Wil.”
“Trust me, I got this.” Promises Wil.
He has a plan.
So Wil and Mareth go get the skull in the past. They bring it into the room in the present where Wil’s uncle is now like a half-dead wraith on the floor.
And instead of being like “okay here’s the skull, before we let you out of that magical cell, cure my uncle” they just let Bandon out and leave Allanon in. That’s how much everyone detests Allanon, who is Budget Gandalf, basically, but built like a brick shithouse. Imagine a scene where Lucius Malfoy and Dumbledore are in a cage and Harry and Hermione let Malfoy out first. That’s what’s going on here. Even though Allanon is like Dumbledore if he had Argus Filch’s personality.
Bandon gets out, draws his sword and walks up to the uncle. He touches the blade to the uncle’s chest.
“Give me the skull.” he says.
“Heal my uncle first!” Demands Wil.
“No.” Says Bandon from under a hair helmet of greasy sorcerer nastiness.
“But you said you would!” Whines Wil, the Shannara, the undisputed most important person in the world.
“Gar! I loove ya Wil!” Yells Wil’s uncle and pulls Bandon’s sword down into his chest, killing himself.
Bandon, in the fracas, grabs the skull and runs out, slamming the door behind him.
So, Wil and Mareth could have released Allanon and left Bandon in the cell where he would have eventually died. He would not get the Warlock Lord’s skull, he would not pass go, he would not collect 200 dollars. Yes, Wil would have to endure his elderly uncle’s demise, rather than the hundreds of thousands of citizens that the the Warlock Lord would turn into indentured shades, but y’know. Potato potahto.
That’s the kind of writing you have to endure. Or half endure half enjoy, really. It’s not that the glass is half empty. It’s that the water has glitter in it.
I wanted so badly to fall in love with the fast-talking bounty hunter Garet Jax but he was just south of worthy. They gave him some brutal-ass dialogue. Poor guy. There was also a beautiful queen of the humans and a cool old dude scientist/druid and I would have readily given both or either of them my devotion if they hadn’t been played so stiffly.
Also, since season one, the title sequence lists elves, gnomes and dwarves, but we have yet to see a solitary dwarf. The gnomes are still around, of course. Provoking gag reflexes as often as they can.
And there’s a lot of actors who flare their nostrils as they talk on this show. Like a real disproportionate amount. Funny thing to notice, I know. Believe me, I certainly didn’t mean to.
In the end, a new Druid is crowned and it’s a girl who has some real promise. She’s also the new Queen of Arborlon. That would have given me hope for a significantly better season three. But alas, it’s not to be. The plug has been pulled, which is probably just as well because as long as Wil is the only Shannara, you’re going to have to endure some hot ass David Chokachi cluelessness.
Knowing that there’s currently no tomorrow for this series, (assuming it isn’t picked up by another network) should you commit any time to it? It really depends on who you are and what kind of show you’re in the mood for, but if you don’t expect too much from ‘The Shannara Chronicles’, you’ll probably get exactly what you’re looking for. We all deserve the guilty pleasure from time to time.
In my case, cancellation or no, despite all the knocks against it, I somehow mostly still enjoyed it. Who knows? Maybe you did, too.
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