MTV’s new show features elves, druids, and a lack of diversity
By Jennifer Ives
“The Shannara Chronicles” premiered on MTV on Jan. 5, to the general optimism of high fantasy and post-apocalyptic lovers alike. Set on the West Coast 300 years after a magical interspecies war between demons and everyone else, human society and technology have been rewound back to the Middle Ages.
“Shannara” follows an elven princess, a half-elf druid, and a human rover, or thief, on their united quest to save the world from the impending return of demons and destruction of life as they know it.
“The Shannara Chronicles” is based on a 1980s high fantasy trilogy by Terry Brooks, and is well-flavored with many of the classic hallmarks of immersive fantasy worlds. From its blithe acceptance of elves, dwarves, demons, and magic to its occasionally cheesy declarative dialogue romanticizing destiny and fate over free will, “The Shannara Chronicles” will strike a fond tone for anyone who’s dabbled in Dungeons and Dragons roleplay or “Lord of the Rings” fanfiction at some point in their lives.
Slick and beautiful animation makes this show a quick and enjoyable binge watch, with its modern soundtrack and gorgeous straight-off-the-runway gowns keeping your attention even when the storyline itself falters or falls into tired tropes. “The Shannara Chronicles’ strong supporting cast is a smart choice that helps assuage the occasionally uneven acting of its relatively unknown main actors. The cast includes John Rhys-Davies, who is best known for his performance as Gimli and the voice of Treebeard in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Rhys-Davies does a wonderful job playing the elven king Eventine Elessedil in “The Shannara Chronicles”.
The show also stars the ever-broody Manu Bennett, an Australian actor who appeared alongside Rhys-Davies in “The Hobbit” as Azog the Defiler, and in the CW’s superhero origin show “Arrow” as Slade Wilson. In “The Shannara Chronicles,” Bennett plays a 300-year-old-druid, the last of his kind, who helps unite the protagonists and guides them on their quest.
While visually attractive and somewhat refreshing against a background of ever increasing superhero origin shows and brooding criminal procedurals, “The Shannara Chronicles” suffers primarily from some of the hallmark issues MTV is known for: a lack of consistent diversity, original storylines, and strong character development.
The main male protagonist, Wil Ohmsford, is played by Austin Butler, who, while attempting the emotional subtleties of his close up scenes admirably, is a visually generic white man who is given little personality beyond earnestness, and having never swung a sword or trained a day in his life is assigned to protect Amberle, a highly trained eleven princess.
This tiresome trope of “untrained farmer boy defends high- born lady to win her affections” feels out of place in this otherwise somewhat promising story.
After all, the pilot opens with Amberle, played by Poppy Drayton, defying cultural gender expectations by being the first female elf to compete—and to win—a position as one of the Chosen, a group of the finest elven warriors tasked with protecting a magical tree. Only continuing the disappointment, Amberle has a romantic relationship with another elven warrior, but immediately after receiving news of his death is given a scene wherein she gawks at Wil’s apathetically underdeveloped abs and is embarrassed when she is caught.
The lack of chemistry between the main actors makes the romantic subplot more of an annoyance than a draw for me, and the lack of LGBTQIAP representation and racial diversity so far makes the story thematically as bland as most of the mass produced high-fantasy stories that saturated the fantasy market from the 1980s to early 2000s.
While watching the first three episodes was a nice trip down memory lane into a genre I’ve had a long fondness for, “The Shannara Chronicles” will need to significantly up their game either in terms of plot twists or character development before I’ll be hooked enough to faithfully watch every week.
The Shannara Chronicles premieres every Tuesday at 10/9EST on MTV, and previous episodes are available on MTV.com