Review: The Shannara Chronicles 1×1-1×3 (US: MTV)

The epitome of fantasy rubbish, but <i>so</i> much fun

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, MTV
In the UK: Not yet acquired

When Into The Badlands arrived on our screens the other side of Christmas, I tried very hard to work out why it wasn’t any good. After all, it had impeccable source material to work with and a decent cast, and it had imported Hong Kong martial arts stars and choreographers to jazz up the fights. Except it was hackneyed and dull.

Was it because it was on AMC, famed for almost fetishing slow storytelling? Or was it simply because it was from Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who perhaps aren’t up to post-apocalyptic quest dramas?

It turns out it’s probably a bit of both, but perhaps not for the reasons I was thinking of. I think it’s because Gough and Millar were putting all their effort into the rather similar The Shannara Chronicles.

‘The Shannara Chronicles’ is a new TV series based on the best-selling fantasy novels by Terry Brooks. Set thousands of years after the destruction of our civilization, the story follows an Elven Princess, Amberle, a half-human half-elf, Wil, and a human, Eretria, as they embark on a quest to stop a Demon army from destroying the Four Lands. Watch new episodes every Tuesday at 10/9c on MTV.

Is it any good?
To me, MTV is this:

But in recent years, they’ve made a sterling effort in terms of scripted TV, with the likes of Teen WolfFaking It and to a lesser extent Scream: The TV Series. The Shannara Chronicles is their latest and biggest scripted show, almost as ambitious as Game of Thrones in its own way. Based on Terry Brooks’ famous Shannara series of fantasy books, it’s set thousands of years from now, following the collapse of human civilisation, in a cod-medieval settting where magic, elves, demons, gnomes, trolls and humans all co-exist.

Kind of. There was a great big war and the demons were stopped by the elves using a magic tree, which has imprisoned them for so long, everyone thinks it’s all just a fairy tale. Except now the tree is dying and the demons are escaping, meaning the half-elf last descendant of King Shannara (Austin Butler from The Carrie DiariesRuby and the Rockits and Life Unexpected), an elven princess (Brit actress Poppy Drayton), a human thief (Ivana Baquero from Pan’s Labyrinth), and the last surviving magic-using Druid (Manu Bennett from Spartacus and Arrow) have to go on a quest to take a new tree seed to be washed in a blood river, so it can replace the current tree.

If that all sounds like complete bobbins, it is. Saddled with weapons-grade awful dialogue such as “Behold! The codex!”, stupid made-up fantasy languages and rufty-tufty outlaws that look like they’ve just come out of the salon, The Shannara Chronicles is almost the platonic absolute of fantasy shows – everyone’s concept of what a fantasy TV show is like comes from it, to the extent that Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire was pastiching it half a decade before it even existed.

But despite all that, I would watch it over Into The Badlands in a heartbeat. For starters, it’s tremendously exciting. It’s got cracking effects, a top supporting cast (John Rhys Davies and James Remar doing sterlingly straight-faced work) and things happen all the time. True, a lot of that is “Quick! We must ride seven leagues to the realm of Thrigdybag in the Shire of Thromptywold to fetch the Magic Rune of T’Sar, the seventh Mage of the Order of Pipe Sealers. Then we must ride on our horses back to…”, but all the relentless questing, revealing of parentage, horses cantering over CGI-enhanced New Zealand landscape strewn with derelict cars, and magic-using is just dead gripping, all the same.

The perfectly made up teen leads spend a lot of time alternating between wise-cracking and po-faced “Why is this my destiny?”-ing, at least when they’re not guilty about accidentally seeing the others having showers or wearing their designer underwear. But unlike Into The Badlands, which feels like it got whatever was left of Gough and Millar’s creativity after they had finished this, they have interesting characters, the girls aren’t just sex slaves and they’re fun to watch as they actually make decisions and do things, rather than ponder it a lot.

And then, of course, there’s Manu Bennett. He’s awesome. He may not have a huge amount of acting talent, but that doesn’t matter because he’s Manu Bennett and it’s perfectly legitimate to have a crush/man-crush on him, no matter what. He may be mere inches away from being Basil Exposition’s entolkiened great-grandfather for 90% of his screen time. He may not light up the screen when he’s discussing his passionate love for Drayton’s aunt. He may have to say things like “When the Druid Sleep calls, there’s no time for goodbyes.” But the man has charisma in spades and all those years on Spartacus means he can twat a CGI demon with a sword with the best of them.

I watched the first two episodes with initial dread; afterwards, I instantly rushed to watch the next episode with excitement and I’m off to watch episode four later. I’m no fantasy fan and The Shannara Chronicles is laughable stuff, but my gods is it fun to watch. Recommended.

  • tobyob

    I'm doing this on my lunch hour at work and the biggest shock for me – after weeks of doing shows from Netflix and Amazon Prime – would be the commercials. I've only made it through the first hour so far, but will continue with it for the time being. I never read the novels as the reviews when they first came out viewed them as being derivative and the series looks to be staying true to that feel. But the look of it all is fantastic and the scenery evokes – at least for me – the work of the HIldebrandt Brothers, who did the original covers. But overall, the characters, the setting, and the storyline is very reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi's apocalyptic fantasy “Wizards”.

    I still don't get the appeal of Manu Bennett, even after seeing most of 'Spartacus', but it's early days yet for this show. We'll see……

  • benjitek

    Many enjoyed Into the Badlands — not a bad show just because you just hated it. Shannara Chronicles surprised me too — wasn't at all expecting to like it, the effects sort of compensate for the dialog — they obviously had a large budget for CGI as it looked amazing.

  • No, I disliked it because it was a bad show, not the other way round. It didn't mysteriously become a not-good show because I didn't like it.

    But if no one is right or wrong (apart from me, obvs), everyone who thinks Into The Badlands is a good show is presumably as wrong as everyone who thinks it's a bad show?

  • benjitek

    Then we'll agree to disagree — I thought it was great…

  • JustStark

    'Good' and 'Bad' are quite independent from 'like' and 'dislike'; there are some excellent programmes that I can't stand, and some terrible ones I rather enjoy. Which sounds like what has happened here.

    However I just so, so hope that lines like 'Behold! The codex!' mean we're talking about a world which takes Warhammer 40,000 way too seriously.

  • Indeed. I don't think either The Shannara Chronicles or Into The Badlands are great or even good shows, but I was prepared to give both a go. However, I think the former is better simply in terms of having some decent characters and plotting. Cinematography's not as good, fights aren't as good, but it's still more watchable.

    And The Shannara Chronicles takes itself very, very seriously, yet doesn't if you see what I mean:

  • JustStark

    'He believes in good, but he doesn't really see the good in himself… probably because of the pain.'

    Ah yes. When will people learn, you should never let an actor open their mouth unless someone else has given them words to say first.

  • I haven't seen the Shannara show yet, but the first episode is on my DVR so I'm looking forward to it. I thought MTV's Scream series was pretty good so I have high hopes.

  • Mark Carroll

    Argh, I hope you haven't found me a new show to watch. I'll wait a bit and check for others' reviews.

    I did read at least some of the books as a teenager but not such that I presently remember much of them, so they were probably entertaining but not exactly life-changing.

  • That should probably be engraved in large letters on a stone tablet somewhere

  • Hope you've had a chance to watch it (and enjoy it) now!

    I thought Scream was okay, but didn't really add anything that the movies or any other teen horror show hadn't already done, so it felt a bit tired to me, but YMMV

  • It's enjoyable. I wouldn't say you should go out of your way to watch it, but if you want to watch some escapist silliness, this fits the bill very nicely

  • I finally saw it and liked it. The production values were quite nice, in my opinion. Terry Brooks' Shannara saga has become so epic, crossing over to some of his other franchises, I believe. It will be interesting to see how closely the show sticks to the source material or if it eventually goes down separate paths.

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  • benjitek

    If Shannara was reviewed halfway through episode 4 on, it kinda goes to crap…

    Wasn't expecting to last through the first episode of this show after reading the reviews on Metacritic. To my surprise I watched episode 1 all the way through and would’ve continued on if I could. The elf that talked like a Southern California valley-boy at the start was slightly annoying until he couldn't talk any more 😉 Odd choice of phraseology in parts, but overall pretty good.

    As soon as episode 5 rolls around, it digresses into something you'd expect from MTV or CW. By the 5th episode, it reaches the point where you could watch the remaining episodes out of order and it wouldn’t really matter.

    It’s similar in tone, production value, and content to the British series Merlin — if you enjoyed that one in it’s entirety, welcome to heaven. Think Game of Thrones for kindergarteners 😉