Over the past few weeks, we have been group-watching MTV’s fantasy series, The Shannara Chronicles, with some online friends of ours. The show is apparently based on Terry Brooks’s The Elfstones of Shannara. I say “apparently,” because, the title of this post notwithstanding, neither of us have actually read any Terry Brooks. Consequently, we have nothing to compare it to, and we have no idea whether the problems we have with the show are inherited from the source material or not.
In any case, as writers, we try to learn something about storytelling from pretty much everything we watch or read. And here’s what we’ve learned from Shannara so far.
1. There’s no substitute for chemistry
I don’t want to say anything unkind about the actors in the show; I’m sure they’re doing the best they can. But I think it’s apparent to anyone watching the show that there is a serious lack of chemistry between the leads. We’re now at episode 8 (of 10), and the show has been trying to set up a love triangle between Will Ohmsford, Princess Amberle, and Eretria. But I honestly don’t buy that any one of those three people actually wants to get together with either of the other two. When you compare them to Richard and Kahlan on the much-missed Legend of the Seeker TV show from a few years ago, it’s not even a contest. That show was a real testament to how good chemistry can elevate cheesy material. Without chemistry, all you’ve got is the cheese. And I love me some cheese, but cheese gets stale after a while, and too much of it gives you indigestion.
2. Don’t forget your character introduction
Another thing that has been bothering us, as well as the friends we’ve been watching the show with, is the devolution of Amberle into a damsel in distress. Now, I have no idea what’s coming up in the last two episodes of the season. Perhaps the princess will shock us all and prove to be strong, independent, and resilient. But so far, she’s just gotten into one scrape or another, and has to be dragged out of them by Will or Eretria. What makes this particularly galling is that the writers seem to have forgotten the character introduction that they gave her. We first meet her, in episode 1, qualifying as one of the Chosen who protect the Ellcrys tree. We’re given to understand that this is something like making it into the elven special forces. She’s not just a badass; she’s a super-duper badass. And yet Will, who is frankly something of a doofus, consistently seems to know more about how to negotiate the world around them than she does. It’s very odd.
3. “Fantasy is actually post-apocalyptic” does nothing for me
This is just a matter of personal preference, but the notion that the Shannara world is actually earth after some nuclear war just seems silly. Not that this is the only series that uses that conceit, of course, but frankly, neither of us has ever liked the idea in any form. Is this supposed to trick sci-fi fans into wanting to read fantasy, or vice versa? Is it supposed to make fantasy seem more “realistic,” somehow? Because it doesn’t, really. As fantasy authors, we’d rather authors just be bold about it: here’s a fantasy world; take it or leave it. If you’re going to write fantasy, it seems to me that you should just own the fantasy elements. There’s magic and wizards and dragons, and once you go down the dark path of trying to explain how dragons are physically possible, it’s just one short step to midi-chlorians.
4. And yet, it’s still fun to watch TV with friends
And in spite of all that, we’re still having fun watching the show. Manu Bennett is fantastic as Allanon the druid, and John Rhys-Davies is as awesome as he always is. And there is some interesting visual design stuff going on that makes it pretty to watch a lot of the time. But we’d probably have stopped watching if we weren’t watching it with our friends. There’s a lot to be said for a group watch, assuming you can work out schedules so that everyone can watch together. And assuming your internet connection permits you to stream video reliably (I’m looking sternly at you, Time Warner Cable). There’s nothing quite like watching a cheesy, middling TV show with friends and amusing each other with your commentary on it. I’m honestly looking forward to seeing the last two episodes of the season.