Continuing my pseudo-regular new series on television shows and movies I’ve watched recently, because … well, it’s something to write about. These are not “reviews” per se, but merely thoughts and observations. You can assume, though, that if I’m writing a post about a thing, it’s notable to me in some way, either especially good, or especially bad, or otherwise relevant somehow.
Today I’d like to talk about a little show called The Shannara Chronicles.
Wait! Don’t leave yet!
The Shannara Chronicles is a television series that airs (aired?) on MTV. Season 1 is currently on Netflix. It stars a cast of young actors you’ve probably never heard of, and John Rhys-Davies and James Remar, who you undoubtedly know by their faces if not their names.
Surprisingly enough given my recent blogging history, there are no story spoilers below. Well, maybe some tiny ones if you’re super sensitive.
I first read The Sword of Shannara let’s say in the early 1980s. It was one of the first fantasy books I remember reading, after The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I can still picture those classic Hildebrandt black-and-white drawings in my thick, beat up paperback copy, which I think I still have around somewhere. At the ripe old age of cough cough cough let’s say 12 or whatever, I loved it. Loved it. Shea, Flick, Allanon, Menion Leah, Balinor, Hendel–they were like real people to me. (Much more so than those high fallutin’ Fellowship wackos.)
If I read it today, I would probably cringe at how Shea’s quest was basically an exact clone of the classic Tolkien Ring-Bearer story with only the names changed.
Except everybody knows that Allanon could totally beat up Gandalf.
Later in my teens, I read the Elfstones of Shannara. I don’t remember the characters or story as much, but I remember loving the hell out of that book, too. I had a big trade paperback copy with a bright colorful picture of Wil Ohmsford, Amberle, and some other guy who I think was one of the Elven guards. I did an oral book report on it for English class, a thing which still fills me with embarrassment and shame to this day, for daring to admit to an entire classroom that I not only voluntarily read a fantasy book, but liked it. I have no idea what I was thinking. (Fantasy was not mainstream when I went to high school. You kids today are so lucky.)
Fast forward cough cough cough years and I heard MTV was making a show called The Shannara Chronicles, allegedly based on the Elfstones of Shannara. Neato! But … MTV? Really? First of all, MTV is still a thing? Apparently yes, it is. And secondly, is it even possible that MTV can do justice to those epic high fantasy adventures I remember? The early production shots looked … interesting.
I never got around to watching it when it came out in January, 2016. I sort of forgot about it. (I’m actually surprised it’s that new. I thought it was older than that.) Who thinks about watching a genre show on MTV? I don’t remember reading any reviews, but the show did not get a lot of buzz, that’s for sure, and I got the vague impression there was a generally negative vibe about it.
This past weekend, I saw The Shannara Chronicles just sitting there right out on the first row of Netflix shows with a whopping 2.5 out of 5 stars, begging to be clicked. I had just finished watching a PBS documentary on Ruby Ridge, which was pretty heavy with real-life drama and far-reaching cultural and political implications that resonate even to this day. I had finished Mass Effect Andromeda, a long slog through a somewhat disappointing story. So I thought, hey, let’s reset the ol’ brain and watch some pure fantasy and see how bad this MTV thing actually is.
Hoo boy. It’s bad. It’s so, so bad.
But to be fair, it’s not a show for adults. It’s clearly made for kids. (The MTV thing was a tip-off.) Most of the cast are kids. And the source material is not exactly Shakespeare. Terry Brooks is not known for his literary depth, especially in his early books. This show is full to bursting with high fantasy tropes. There’s an honest-to-God Elven princess in it, and while there have been some attempts to de-trope-ify her, she does occasionally still fall down when running away.
Still, there are some decent moments. It’s the kind of show you put on in the background and go about your business, and occasionally something interesting catches your eye.
The basic plot is this: The Ellcrys, a special tree in the Elven capital city, is dying. For various reasons, when it dies, demons will invade and kill everyone. For various reasons, a band of youngsters (including the principles–the half-elven son of Shea Shannara, the aforementioned Elven princess, and a snarky Rover girl) needs to go to a faraway place to save the tree and the world.
I give them credit for not making the first book, which as I said was an obvious clone of Lord of the Rings. They had the sense to skip to the second book which is an entirely different kind of quest (but, you know, still basically the same–a small group travels all the way to a dangerous place to do a dangerous thing that will save the world).
With hindsight, it’s clear to me now why teenage-boy-me liked that book. I mean, come on, a beautiful Elven princess and a snarky Rover girl both fight over a nerdy half-elven boy? I had no chance. And … well, this is a bit of a spoiler but there is an element of Romeo and Juliet-style tragedy, which pushes all of my inner, hidden goth buttons.
By the way, from an adult perspective, I can now share with teenage nerds out there that having two beautiful girls fighting over you is a totally realistic situation that happens all the time in real life.
Ahem. Anyway. One thing I liked about the Shannara books was the occasional hint that the story was set in future Earth and not some past or alternate world. In the books, it was really subtle. One or two sentences if you were really paying attention.
In the show, it hits you over the head with a sledgehammer that the events follow some catastrophic nuclear war. (It’s literally in the opening credits, and all over the promotional material, even though it has no relevance to the story.) The trolls are wearing gas masks or something. There’s old stuff lying around all over the place: Guns, film projectors, CD players, speakers, electricity, etc. I swear to God there is one episode where they show clips of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on a projector and rave to some electronic dance music. Then there’s a gun fight. It’s … weird.
But hey, if I had kids I’d rather they watch this than The Real World.
So I stopped watching before the terribleness hurt my brain and the oversaturated colors hurt my eyes.
No I didn’t. I watched all 10 episodes in the first season all the way to the end. And you won’t believe this, but there is an entire second season. I can’t wait.
P.S. I don’t think I ever finished reading Wishsong of Shannara, the third book, and I have not read any of the hundreds of other Shannara books.