The next big thing coming to television isn’t coming from Netflix, HBO or AMC; it’s coming from the channel that popularized reality TV and music videos.
Considering MTV’s more lauded efforts — those first early years of The Real World, the premiere of "Video Killed the Radio Star" and the airing of legendary animated shows like Beavis and Butt-head, Aeon Flux and Daria — it shouldn’t be surprising that the Viacom-backed channel is getting into the high fantasy, big budget world of writer Terry Brooks’ Shannara.
The Shannara Chronicles' 10 episodes, which were shot in New Zealand, marks the most expensive production ever picked up by MTV, according to the network. It’s a big gamble show setting its sights on the likes of Game of Thrones.
And from what I’ve seen (the first few episodes), it pays off.
Think of the world of Shannara as a little bit Game of Thrones, a little bit The Walking Dead and a whole lot of The Lord of the Rings.
First created in 1977, when writer Terry Brooks kicked off the original Shannara trilogy with The Sword of Shannara novel, the universe of Shannara has continued to steadily grow. The most recent release in the series, The Darkling Child, hit shelves this past summer, bringing the total number of Shannara books to 27. Another novel is planned for this coming summer followed by what might be the last trilogy in the epic collection of works.
While the books run from present day to thousands of years in the future, the main premise of the story anchors much of the Shannara history to a "great war" that wiped out most of the planet through nuclear holocaust.
The Sword of Shannara takes place 2,000 years after that event in a world that is peopled by a mix of humans, mythical elves and mutated humans now regarded as dwarves, gnomes and trolls. While much of modern science has been lost to the world, magic has been rediscovered.
MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles is an adaptation not of The Sword of Shannara, but its sequel: The Elfstones of Shannara. While that does add a bit of confusion, thanks to a lack of some historic context for those new to the franchise, the television adaptation is impressive in nearly every other way.
The show grabs you instantly, kicking off with a sweeping view of this verdant, seemingly fantasy world, then juxtaposing those fantasy landscape tropes with occasional shots of familiar, grown-over remnants of a now distant, destroyed modern age. It’s clear from the get-go that this isn’t going to be your typical swords and sorcery romp.
And it isn’t. The show benefits greatly from Brooks’ voluminous writings and descriptions of the land, and smartly uses the chance to reinvent mythical creatures as things more out of nightmare than fantasy.
Where The Sword of Shannara tells a familiar story (some Lord of the Rings fans say too familiar) set across an outlandish setting, The Elfstones of Shannara, which stars the grandson of the previous book's hero, focuses on the elves and demons of this world.
In the book, a thrown-together band of heroes has to seek out a way to stop a demonic force from invading the land and killing everyone in it.
This week’s two-part series premiere aptly balances the need to introduce those characters, set up a bit of their backstory and deliver the sort of plot that will bring viewers back for more.
Only one week in, and the show is already deep into cross-country travel with Half-Elf healer Wil (Austin Butler), Elven princess and "chosen" Amberle (Poppy Drayton), Human rover Eretria (Ivana Baquero) and Allanon (Manu Bennett), last of the Druids. There’s also plenty of scenes with demons, a shape-shifter and, of course, royal intrigue.
The solid acting, amazing cinematography and intriguing plot are helped along by hints of the strange world in which Chronicles takes place. The special effects — one of my biggest concerns for the show — are fantastic, leaning on CGI when necessary, but still relying on a lot of practical effects to ground the fantasy series in a sort of warped reality. I was particularly taken with my first sighting of this world’s trolls. By the third episode, set to air next week, my wife, my 14-year-old son and myself were all hooked.
And that’s the real magic of this show: It blends the appeal of high fantasy with the grounding of a post-apocalyptic, yet seemingly healthy planet to deliver something both familiar to fans of today’s big shows and unique.
It’s too early for me to tell just how far the showrunners will take the trolls and other mutants of Shannara and how grim its fantasy setting will become, but three hours in I’m not really worried about that. Instead, I’m focused on what’s to come and on how deftly the team behind the show has made me want to re-experience a book that I found a little wanting when I read it.
The Shannara Chronicles is an excellent addition to a season of television that promises to be practically bloated with fun, watch-worthy fare. With a solid cast, high production value and the nearly untapped wealth of 27 novels to dig into, Shannara is the sort of experience fans of good television should settle into for the long ride.
Parts one and two of "Chosen," the show’s premiere, are set to air on MTV starting at 10 p.m. ET Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.