This year’s cable fare has been kind to fantasy fans. Hot on the heels of AMC’s Into the Badlands and FX’s The Bastard Executioner, and running simultaneously with Freeform’s new Shadowhunters series, MTV has recently unleashed its own contender in the genre: The Shannara Chronicles. What sets The Shannara Chronicles apart from its immediate competition, however, is that it is neither high Medieval fantasy nor futuristic fantasy. Rather, the series cleverly hedges the divide by solidly staking out territory in both camps.
Based on the book series by legendary fantasy author Terry Brooks, The Shannara Chronicles takes place thousands of years after the downfall of mankind. Its characters are divided up amongst the standard races typical of the fantasy genre: elves, half-elves, trolls, demons, and, of course, humans. With magic believed to be long-dead and the War of the Races decades in the past, the elves hold dominion over the Four Lands, disliked and feared by the rest of the world’s population. A series of chosen guardians from among their ranks protect the Ellcrys Tree, a twist on the mythological Tree of Life, which guards the gateway between realms and keeps the Four Lands safe from demonic invasion. However, at the start of the series, the Ellcrys is dying. One of the Chosen must purify its seedling and plant it in its forbearer’s place before the demonic army of the corrupted, exiled druid Dagda Mor can conquer the Four Lands and destroy all who live there.
The plot which follows is easily recognizable to any D&D campaigner worth their salt. Elven Princess Amberle, a member of the Chosen, must team up with half-elf mage-in-training Wil (who also happens to be a member of the ancient Shannara dynasty) and the roguish human rover Eretria to carry the Ellcrys’ seedling to its purification site and save the day. Along the way, they must battle the evil forces of the Dagda Mor and hon their skills, learning how to function as a team and growing steadily stronger in their own abilities. The fact that all three members of this unlikely trio have their own agendas, and that they wind up forming an inevitable love triangle, hardly gives this standard fantasy plot an air of mystery. Long-time fan favorites to the genre (John Rhys Davies, Manu Bennet) are joined by a cast of up-and-coming Hollywood stars (Austin Butler, Poppy Drayton, Ivana Baquero), and the acting is predictably uneven across the board. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the show as a whole tends to get a bit carried away with the ‘epicness’ of its own storyline. One hardly needs the sweeping fanfare of its over-the-top musical score as a reminder.
However, the series earns back points for its gorgeous execution. While the CGI graphics are on the better side of typical for made-for-TV entertainment, the show’s costuming, set design, and prop construction are truly noteworthy. Nature has reclaimed most of what the ‘ancient humans’ built in the legendary past, but some signs of their forgotten crafts still linger. The landscape of The Shannara Chronicles is littered with a host of mysterious, abandoned vehicles and the concrete and iron skeletons of once-impressive buildings.
This post-apocalyptic fantasy conceit works well on the macro level, but it is even more impressive on the micro level. Trolls wearing gas masks, rovers with tribal-esque braids in their hair; The Shannara Chronicles does an excellent job of blending the supple, flowing fashion usually associated with high fantasy with the darker, more primitive grunge designs often favored by futuristic epics. The Four Lands may have been shattered and remade in the aftermath of the War of the Races, but audiences can still take their expected cues from the social markers found in each character’s wardrobe: Princess Amberle is resplendent in her intricate jewelry and flowing robes; Eretria’s earth-toned clothes and motley assortment of leather make it clear that, despite her beauty, she has not had an easy life. And Wil, half-human, half-elf, appropriately wears the more subdued clothes of a character caught safely in between the other two.
That does not mean, however, that the costuming is without its eye-pleasing subtleties. The neon cords braided into Eretria’s hair bear the faintest reminder that The Shannara Chronicles is not an epic straight out of Ye Olden Days. Amberle earns her right to be a member of the Chosen by running a gauntlet in what looks suspiciously like a long-sleeved, silk-screened t-shirt (and then celebrates the evening after in a gorgeous gown that any modern-day fashionista would be proud to wear.) The Elven king displays his official rank with the slim silver crown one would expect, but he also wears a sash much more reminiscent of a modern day statesman. When Amberle journeys to visit her aunt, a self-exiled elf living on the outskirts of the kingdom, she finds her dressed in a fascinating blend of homespun and well-worn regal garments. A good deal of thought has very obviously gone into each character’s unique wardrobe, as well as into the environments from whence they came, and it pays off. Their personalities, and the story as a whole, are richer, more vibrant, and more readily believable for it.
The conceit behind The Shannara Chronicles is not original, but it is atypical enough to leave its audience pleasantly in the dark as to what happens next. The show’s impressive attention to detail enables viewers to look past its occasionally heavy-handed attempts at ‘epic fantasy’ and see into a well-crafted world of subtle detail and intriguing personalities. And while the men and women laboring behind the scenes on costume and set design may be the real unsung heroes of the saga, the main characters remain interesting and diverse enough to carry home the series’ central storyline. Medieval fantasy and futuristic fantasy fans alike can find something worth grabbing on to, here; the show is five episodes into the first season as of the writing of this article, and it is already clear that MTV has found a rich world capable of appealing to both sides.
The Shannara Chronicles airs on Tuesdays, 10/9c, on MTV.
Crescenda Long is an amateur Medievalist, aspiring novelist, and part-time book reviewer for High Voltage Magazine. When not working or frittering her life away on Neko Atsume, she can most often be found reading, writing, or gesticulating wildly about Japanese rock music. She doesn’t bite (unless provoked); feel free to say hello via her twitter or on tumblr.
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