The Shannara Chronicles, a review of the first four episodes

Over the last month I picked up rumors that there was a television adaptation being made of the Shannara series of books by Terry Brooks , but I didn’t think much of it until one day when I saw that a friend had shared on Facebook that the show would be featured on HBO-Nordic. I have now watched the first four episodes of the premiere season, I review them here, and in the coming weeks I will review the rest of the season episode by episode.

Before getting on to the actual review, there are a couple of facts that I for the record should plainly state. I have read two of the books on which this show is based, Armageddon’s Children and Elfstones of Shannara. The show differs a lot from the books though, I read Elfstones over ten years ago and there will in any case not be any major spoilers posted here.

Having said that, let’s get on to the actual review. The show is perhaps a bit more simple than stories I usually like, some of that is due to the source material and some due to acting and dialog reminding me too much of a cheesy teenage romance. The show is definitively watchable, but everyone who needs a warning is hereby warned, this is most certainly not going to be a purely positive review.

The first episode opens with a beautifully crafted view of a mountainous forest or jungle covering the ruins of modern buildings, steel girders and what looks like the remains of the Space Needle in Seattle. This immediately establishes a few things as regards to the setting of the show. The story doesn’t take place in a fantasy world, but on Earth thousands of years into the future after a nuclear apocalypse. Therefore there are of course remains of the old world left here and there, which sets the whole world apart a bit from the classical sword-and-sorcery settings of say The Lord of the Rings.

A landscape is portrayed that is covered with old rusted vehicles and industrial equipment, and at one point we see a character walking along the remains of an enormous bridge that has partially collapsed. These throwbacks to the 21-st century work better the larger they are, seeing the rusted and broken carcass of an oil tanker in the background is more convincing then seeing the remains of a random truck in the middle of nowhere. As a whole, though, I like this setting, but certain specific locations need pointing out as being quite ridiculous. One of the worst offenders among these is the court in the elven capital.

The Elven Court, for lack of a better name, at times feels like the stereotypical american high-school in a mid-sized town in the Midwest, getting ready for prom. This isn’t supposed to be Elrond’s court in Rivendell, obviously, but the fact that a couple of scenes are set to what sounds too much like pop-music, and especially that there is high-school-like  gossiping about boyfriends and whatnot going on kinda ruins all suspension of disbelief. Even “The Gauntlet” felt a bit like the try-outs for the school’s football team. That one character seemed to be preparing a “dear Johnny”-speech and that an “I’m too dangerous for you”-dialog straight out of The Vampire Diaries or Twilight takes place doesn’t help.

Well written dialog and good acting could have remedied some of this, but there isn’t always enough of it. My favorite scenes are perhaps the ones involving Allanon’s first visit to Eventine’s court. At one point the crown prince interrupts a discussion between Allanon and the king and to emphasize whatever he is saying puts a hand on Allanon’s chest. Eventine first gives him a certain look and then grabs his wrist to remove his hand. No dialog is even required, that look alone conveys the message of “son, show some fucking respect”. Later on, when the prince denounces the stories about the Elcrys as fairy tales, Allanon asks the king how he has allowed his son to believe something like that and the king says that he himself thought magic disappeared after the last war. Allanon’s answer to this is really good, dramatic without being too cheesy.

“…well then you tell that to your people when the fairy-tales are ripping out their throats!”

The title sequence gets both the best and the worst of the setting. I like what they are trying to do by showing nuclear blasts and the geneology tree of the dwarves, gnomes and so on, it just lacks a frame or two of the resulting world, with oil tankers rusting in the forest. Visually at least, the title sequence is quite good. Visually. But the music does nothing for me, that particular song is not what is needed here.

As for the actual story, it is not without its surprises. I did not expect Amberle’s aunt to die in the second episode, or her boyfriend to croak as early as he did. I knew that the boyfriend was a gonner when the changeling revealed itself before him, but when Amberle first had the premonition I thought it would be a while, perhaps until the end of the season. The aunt however, I thought until the very last would either save herself with magic or be saved by Allanon.

The changeling, furthermore, makes for an interesting enemy in the fourth episode. It it definitively more interesting than the lackwit rover leader who wants to steal the elfstones. That guy is just annoying.  But I would caution against a deus-ex-machina approach to the changeling, where other characters in the future, whenever the writers run out of ideas, turn out to be changelings. That would just be boring. Also, I’ve had it with these mother fucking broken neck on these mother fucking shows. There should never again be a scene filmed where one character breaks another ones neck like that, it looks too damn easy, and quite frankly, ridiculous, and it is being done everywhere. It would have been better if Allanon fenced for a while with the changeling and then ran it through.

Finally, I would like to end with a list of questions, in the off chance that anyone out there has some answers at hand.

  • Why is it that, as they are having a long, and for the survival of civilization critical, debate about whether magic really exists, the druid present doesn’t do one simple trick to prove it, yet when he wants to enter the palace of his old friend he uses magic like it’s no big deal to push aside a guard?
  • Where was the changeling during the third episode? The last of the chosen is present in the palace for quite a long time, the changeling is there specifically to kill the chosen, yet it has in advance taken on the shape of some important person at that meeting and gone for it? The changeling doesn’t seem to have a self-preservation instinct considering that it later on attacks Amberle in front of guards.
  • What is the point of including an old romance between Allanon and Amberle’s aunt if she just croaks and he moves on like nothing happened? For this kind of show it seems like they missed a perfect opportunity for a character to show some real emotion. Which, now that I think of it, makes me suspicious about whether or not she is really dead… Hmm, that’s a good one, remember you heard it here first.

TL, DR: For now I award this show 7/10 points. As reference, I would give the first season of Game of Thrones 9 points, and the fifth season 7 points. The first season of True Detective, or all of Deadwood, would get 10/10, all of Rome perhaps 9/10 and the debacle called Legend of The Seeker 4/10, if I’m generous. Gotham, the Netflix show set in the Batman world before Batman, would get 6/10.

Postscript: You can follow me on twitter at @PromethiumWings.

 

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