Sunday, January 17, 2016

Review: The Shannara Chronicles, S1E1

Okay, so I literally just finished watching the first episode of The Shannara Chronicles on YouTube (beyond glad MTV put it up, or I wouldn't have seen it). I have to say: I really enjoyed it.

Nay, loved it even.

So this is the beef that I have with the critiques (like this one) that I have read about Shannara:
The Shannara Chronicles is a post-apocalyptic fantasy produced and marketed to Young Adults. It is not high fantasy; Brooks is not Tolkien. Yes, it is tropey.* Yes, the language and acting and drama is all very modern and tween-y.
But here is why that shouldn't matter.

1. "The acting is empty, and the dialogue is all wrong for fantasy."

I would have to agree that the acting in Shannara isn't the best. There are times when the actors are either over-selling or under-selling their characters' emotions, and this disconnect between what is happening and what viewers assume the characters' should be emoting can be frustrating.

But before picking up your torch and storming MTV Studios in hot pursuit of these "bad actors," let's remember: these are teen-ish actors playing teen roles for a teen show. Am I saying that we should overlook "bad" acting? (If one could really even call the acting bad . . . come on, you guys) No. I am saying that one needs to keep the experience of the actors in perspective before accusing them of ruining Shannara or, you know, fantasy in general.

Take the top casting actors for the show, as examples. Austin Butler -- the actor who plays Wil -- is 25, and he is most known for Aliens in the Attic, The Carrie Diaries, and Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure, the latter of which is a spin-off of the Disney film High School Musical. Is this a bad thing? No, but bear in mind that he is most known for productions targeted at tweens and YAs. His experience is acting in films and shows primarily aimed at viewers who would overlook or otherwise not "get" nuanced acting.

The show's other top casting actor is Poppy Drayton, who plays Amberle. Drayton is also 24-5, and most people would agree that her facial expressions and acting somewhat trump those of Austin Butler. While Butler has more experience than Drayton, Drayton has been involved with productions much more serious in nature than Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure. Drayton has appeared in horror films like Unhallowed Ground and Writers Retreat as well as period shows like Midsommer Murders and Downton Abbey. I would argue that the shows and films she has appeared in require somewhat more advanced (meaning nuanced and emotive) acting than those productions in which Butler has appeared.

All of this is a long, round-about way of saying that actors on the show like Butler and Drayton haven't yet had the experience under their belts to make them award-winning actors. Gracious, Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the best actors in the world, and even he is still waiting patiently for an Academy Award. Lighten up.

As far as the dialogue goes, let me be brief: Shannara is (I assume from the panorama scenic views because I haven't read the books) a post-apocalyptic fantasy. Why would you assume that the elves, druids, and other creatures/beings would be speaking as though they were in the Medieval Ages? Unrealistic expectation bordering on asinine assumption stemming from the "fantasy" aspect of the book/show.

2. "The show is boring for adults who actually appreciate fantasy."

Okay. I am an adult who appreciates fantasy. In fact, it is my favorite genre. And I like this show. It isn't Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, but you know what? I don't expect it to be because I understand that it is a teen show for teens.

I am capable -- as a fantasy loving adult -- to enjoy Shannara because I understand its scope and purpose differs from the reality of the book.

It isn't putting on airs and pretending to be high fantasy with a high-brow literary bent. It is upfront, first and foremost, a teen fantasy show. Even if Brook's original series was meant to be devoured by these pretentious adults who "actually appreciate" fantasy, the adaptation is not.

But I suppose most people will always lament the fact that adaptations differ from the books.

3. "The plot is too obvious. I know what is going to happen as soon as the show drops its first hint!"

The show does -- so far -- seem to lack an edge. Fair enough. But even with the show's lack of plot uncertainty or suspense, you have to keep in mind: only three episodes have come out. The first episode was, like the first chapter of a book, meant to introduce us to the primary characters, the central conflict, and a general sense of the world. The producers gave us all of that, as well as hints at future subplots, all in 45 minutes. Of course the beginning of Shannara is going to be obvious: It is meant to hook you into the plot, to align you with the interests of the characters. Now, I have yet to see Episodes 2 and 3, so perhaps this bit of criticism is fully justified.

Then again, only three episodes have aired . . . so pooh-poohing the plot now is like saying a book that you didn't finish reading is trash, which I can't stand.

4. "Oh, great. Another 'chosen one' story. And we even know who she is right off the bat!"

Uh. Okay. We also knew that Harry Potter and Frodo were the chosen ones right off the bat, too. The chosen one trope is overdone, to be sure; but  the "chosen one" character could be done well in Shannara. Give the show time to see whether or not it develops this aspect in an interesting way.

Final thoughts

Now, I agree with The Atlantic article when it says that "a truly vibrant fantasy story requires some sort of invention." It is this sense of invention and "new-ness," as the article points out, that many of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire readers find so appealing. As a post-apocalyptic fantasy, there is bound to be ample material from which the writers and directors can pull to make Shannara feel like a new and original and fresh fantasy story.

I for one am going to give the show and its actors time to prove themselves before I pass heavy judgement.

And let me be clear:

This post is not meant to be a response to the article from The Atlantic. I am sure the knowledgeable and experienced writers at that prestigious establishment could take a cursory look at my blog and rip a new hole into my soul. Instead, this post is simply me addressing some of the more prevalent criticisms of MTV's The Shannara Chronicles appearing on chat forums, social media, and official critical articles like the one featured on The Atlantic's website.

For more information:

Here is a great summary of the show's gist and a balanced review from Forbes. Below are some links to Limyaael's Fantasy Rants that are relative to both The Shannara Chronicles and this post.

Have you seen the first episodes of The Shannara Chronicles yet? What are your thoughts?

*The article from The Atlantic primarily references storyline tropes (dead parents, journeys, destinies) and worldbuilding tropes (magical races and the common use of words like 'gnome' and 'changeling').

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