Let’s start off with this: I like a lot of things.
I’ll be the first to admit it. It takes a lot for me to really dislike something – specifically concerning movies, shows, books, etc, within the sci-fi/fantasy genres. I tend to find something to enjoy out of all sorts of stories even when they are far from universally acclaimed. While I can definitely recognize when something isn’t great per se, I can generally still have fun with it.
I say all that to preface this declaration that I’m going to make next: I’m a big fan of The Shannara Chronicles.
This show, based on the series of novels from Terry Brooks, debuted back in 2016, first on MTV and then on the now defunct Spike TV for its second season in 2017. It ran during an era ripe for mainstream epic fantasy – studios were swooping up rights to famous book series left and right and Game of Thrones was reaching peak popularity. However, in what I’d like to think was an earnest effort to carve out its own identity for itself, The Shannara Chronicles – rather than mirroring the tone and style of just one thing like the Lord of the Rings or the aforementioned Game of Thrones individually – ended up combining elements of several different properties and genres together in mish-mash of ideas and concepts. In probably the most accurate initial review of the show, the A.V. Club stated that it could be thought of as a drinking game for fantasy tropes.
Ultimately, what this show gives us is a ‘sexy’ teen drama with conventionally attractive leads mixed into a gritty, gory, and brutal fantasy realm containing wizards, creatures and strange races, all with a hefty dash of dystopian YA adventure themes and aesthetics thrown in just for good measure.
Sounds like fun, eh?
In mixing all of these pieces together in a blender and creating this show, I can only guess the creators were trying their best to make something that would appeal to nearly everyone. And – as already stated – while I enjoyed it (see: paragraphs 1 & 2), unfortunately that ended up being far from the case and the show was cancelled after its second season. While it may never have quite hit home with most mainstream audiences, I certainly found it to have a particular charm and fun factor that was just hard not to enjoy to some degree.
So before we jump into the plot, for those who like to read before watching, the series’ first season heavily draws from the second book in Terry Brooks’ colossal series, The Elfstones of Shannara (which, coincidentally, was the only one of the books I’d read before the show premiered). The first novel, The Sword of Shannara, tends to feel a bit more like Brooks’ take on Tolkien’s Lord if the Ring books and Elfstones feels more like the point in which he begins telling his own story. The second season of the show more or less blazes it’s own trail, drawing less and less from the books.
That being said, in entering into the world of The Shannara Chronicles, one is dropped into a realm known as the Four Lands while following the journeys of Wil (Austin Butler), Amberle (Poppy Drayton), Eretria (Ivana Baquero), and the mysterious Druid, Allanon (Manu Bennett). Due to the actions of a salty dark lord-type, the crew end up embarking on a quest to save a dying magical tree and banish a whole bunch of demons back to a hell dimension with the help of the enigmatic, powerful and ancient blue elfstones. Along the journey, we meet odd races and cultures, learn about the magic systems of the world, speculate on ensuing romances, listen as modern music plays against the backdrop of epic fantasy imagery, and witness the great John Rhys-Davies absolutely devour the scenery as the elf king, Eventine!
There’s definitely lot that goes on in this show and, by virtue of it being a comfort show that I tended to throw on in the background while doing other things, I can’t say that I always understood why certain people were doing certain things – but I will say that I loved nearly every minute of it. The demons and creatures were weird and cool, the visuals were all quite solid, and – something of a rarity in epic fantasy – there was a concerted effort to have a diverse cast of characters in lead roles (more so in season 2). And, for as much as I love hard hitting, meaningful and poignant storytelling, this never felt like it had much in the way of a ‘message’ or acted as if it were trying to ‘redefine’ the genre in some manner, which was oddly kind of refreshing. Rather, it felt like it was content to be exactly the kind of wacky show that came out of that blender mentioned before. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s incredibly campy and the melodrama is laid on so thick that, while the stakes are high for the world it exists in, it never feels that heavy to the viewer. And honestly, with the chance to flip on HBO and continually stress over which character I loved was about to be gruesomely and depressingly killed off in Game of Thrones at the time, this felt like not only a nice thematic respite in the genre, but a decent companion piece in a sense too.
The Shannara Chronicles plugged along on television to mostly middling reviews and sagging ratings and unfortunately never really founds its footing. Now, however, it’s on Netflix just waiting for anyone with an account to jump into its world. We certainly aren’t devoid of epic fantasy on screen at the moment, with newer shows such as The Witcher and to some extent, Cursed, making waves right now, as well as a multitude of older series in back catalogues readily available to to stream too, but if genre storytelling is your jam, maybe now’s the time to jump on board the Shannara train and mix it up a bit!