When I saw the first commercials for MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, which just finished up its first season last week, I dismissed it as a cheap Game of Thrones knock-off. But I couldn’t have been more wrong: it was actually more of a Lord of the Rings knock-off! Still, the bizarre mash-up of epic fantasy and MTV made for a show that was consistently interesting, even when it wasn’t really very good.
First, a disclaimer: I have, and will always have, a soft spot in my heart for Terry Brooks’ Shannara books. Many people dismiss them as carbon-copies of Tolkien, and yeah, it’s pretty hard to argue with that—especially the first book, The Sword of Shannara, which is pretty much a beat-for-beat recreation of The Lord of the Rings. However, these books were my gateway drug to reading fantasy—Brooks’ Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold! was the first adult book I ever read—and I will always be thankful for that. Besides, Brooks has grown a lot as a writer, and his novels are reliably fun and exciting adventures.
So it was probably a good decision for MTV to skip over Sword and adapt Brooks’ second book, The Elfstones of Shannara. A lot of the basic elements are still familiar—the farm boy with a destiny, the mysterious mentor, the rebellious princess, the powerful magical artifact, the army of ugly monsters—but there’s enough difference that it doesn’t feel like The Lord of the Rings 2.0. Besides, much of the fantasy genre has been playing in Tolkien’s sandbox for a long time now, and other books and movies have remixed these same elements effectively.
In fairness, The Shannara Chronicles has a lot going for it. The series was filmed in New Zealand, and it looks beautiful. It’s full of those sweeping landscape shots we loved in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and in its better moments, it captures some of the feel of those films (and even in its worse, it at least feels like Hercules or Xena). Adding to this impression is John Rhys-Davies, who plays the elven king—and let me tell you, it is weird seeing Gimli wearing elf ears. For a basic cable production the costumes and sets are surprisingly impressive, although some of the makeup effects are a bit dodgy: the gnomes look like they are wearing half-melted Halloween masks. One thing that makes the Shannara books unique is the twist that this fantasy world is (dun dun dun!) actually our world, centuries after a nuclear holocaust, and the show has fun with this idea in some of its better moments—and also some of its worst.
For example, take my pick for the series’ worst episode, “Utopia.” In this episode, our intrepid adventurers find themselves in a mysterious village where the inhabitants seem to be cosplaying as Mennonites (everyone else in The Shannara Chronicles is cosplaying as characters from Lord of the Rings). These villagers have apparently found a source of electricity (?!), which they use to power an ancient movie projector (??!!) and music player (???!!!), so they can hold an impromptu hoedown/rave (????!!!!). It comes completely out of left field, and is never mentioned again.
This is typical of the weird tension between MTV teen drama and epic fantasy that runs throughout the series. It’s trying for this epic, serious tone in the vein of Lord of the Rings, but almost every character talks like they just stepped off of a teen soap opera. The worst offender is protagonist Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler). The character is almost painfully bland and generic, and the writers seem to have overcompensated by trying desperately to make him relatable to modern teens. He dresses in what I can only describe as a medieval version of a hoodie, complete with skullcap and fingerless gloves—he looks like he is on his way to Ye Olde Skate Park. He attempts witty banter with his mentor, the druid Allanon (whom I can only describe as “Jacked Gandalf”), but most of this falls completely flat. He is part of an unnecessary love triangle that never develops or really goes anywhere, I think because MTV dramas are legally required to have at least one forced love triangle.
This is all very silly—but it is also kind of what makes the show entertaining. It would just be another cookie-cutter fantasy, but its constant war with itself—MTV vs. epic fantasy—lends it an absurd and unpredictable quality that I haven’t really seen before. It’s often not good, but it is frequently so-bad-it’s good. It’s definitely a guilty pleasure, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope it got picked up for a second season.