To say the fantasy genre is crowded would something of an understatement. Among Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and a whole slew of other popular book franchises now being adapted, there’s not a whole lot of room for yet another hit sensation. Even knowing all this, MTV went ahead and gave it a shot anyway with The Shannara Chronicles. It’s based off of Terry Brook’s fantasy trilogy, The Sword of Shannara, and so far, it’s been the subject of far more criticism than praise in its early episodes.
It’s difficult to innovate and invent nowadays in a world of fantasy novels, TV shows, and movies that’s quite literally done it all. The Shannara Chronicles is a show almost painfully aware of this fact, and as a result, goes in the exact opposite direction in its execution. Featuring all the major touch-points of just about every one of its competitors, it’s best described as a grab-bag of fantasy tropes. That grab-bag includes (but isn’t limited to): elves, dwarves, gnomes, demons, druids, trolls, magic, two separate characters that fit the “chosen one” mold of your classic Joseph Campbell model, a post-apocalyptic future where humanity as we know it is all but extinct, and for good measure, a noble quest to smite an ancient evil.
As The A.V. Club so eloquently put it, The Shannara Chronicles is “the fantasy drinking game you hoped it would be.” The show is derivative in every sense of the word, and throughout its two-hour premiere, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve seen this all before. For my own watching experience, my girlfriend was milling around the living room minding her own business, until a particularly “emotional” death scene in the beginning. As almost a joke, she predicted the next line of dialogue to be something along the clichéd lines of “I see the light.” Not moments later, the character on-screen spoke those words verbatim, as my girlfriend collapsed to the floor in a fit of laughter. That’s the level of predictability we’re dealing with here.
That aside, it’s important to go into shows like with this with realistic expectations. You won’t find a review for this show that doesn’t point out the rote, “going through the motions”-type feel The Shannara Chronicles seems to specialize in. But that doesn’t mean there’s not something entirely entertaining here. Showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Into the Badlands, Smallville) are no strangers to quality TV, and to be completely honest, there are worse ways to kill an hour of your time. io9 sums it up aptly, pointing out that “just because you know the story doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy The Shannara Chronicles for what it is: a pleasant adventure series, with a strange sort of charm to it.”
Of course, let that endorsement come with a whole host of caveats. There are a lot of shows on TV right now, and as a consumer of all that TV, you have a finite amount of time and emotional energy. If your plate of preferred television is already filled with The 100, Game of Thrones, and the even more crowded realm of superheroes, then we’d entirely understand your hesitance in adding The Shannara Chronicles to the mix. But if you’re looking for a show that doesn’t prominently feature a Kardashian while still demanding little from its audience, then maybe give it a shot.
It’s tough to make noise in the fantasy genre, especially on television. Interestingly enough, The Shannara Chronicles has managed to generate buzz all the same, albeit in the form of a series of tepid endorsements at best. At worst, some people will tell you the show is a waste of time. If you think about the bar of quality for MTV’s typical programming though, you start to see a show that could potentially evolve from “fantasy drinking game” into “perfectly adequate escapism.”
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