Perhaps the best way to explain The Shannara Chronicles is an SAT-style analogy, as befits the series’ teenage target demo. As Game of Thrones is to HBO, with its violence and antiheroes and moral grey areas, Shannara is to MTV, with its adolescent protagonists and maudlin pop soundtrack and that rarest of occurrences in filmed fantasy: American accents. The latest novel-to-television-series adaptation, which premieres tonight, is a reminder that fantasy is a big tent, and there’s a lot more directions it can go in besides dark and dirty.
In the case of Shannara, that direction is teen-centric drama, where even the aging wizard (sorry, druid) mentor figure is preternaturally hot and the sex stays offscreen while the sexual tension remains very much on. It’s a perfect genre to combine with high fantasy, which is so often told as a coming-of-age story: see Eragon, or Lord of the Rings, or the entire oeuvre of Tamora Pierce, or any number of sagas both contemporary and classic. Of course, blending the two narratives together doubles the cheese and camp inherent in both. It also yields a mixture of what makes each kind of story so fun.
Based on The Elfstones of Shannara, the second installment of Terry Brooks’ “original” Shannara trilogy (the Shannara Expanded Universe, if you will, now encompasses more than two dozen novels, the most recent of which was published just this summer), The Shannara Chronicles takes place in a world that’s largely recognizable as a generic post-Tolkien hodge podge of species, mythologies, and proper nouns. There are elves, gnomes, demons, and trolls; there are kingdoms to be saved and family heirlooms to be passed down; there are made-up words like Ellcrys and Arborlon and Dagda Mor, plus compound ones like Bloodfire and Elfstones.
It’s all pleasantly familiar, with a sole exception that’s thus far proven more important to the marketing materials than the actual plot of the show. As the fallen Space Needle prominently displayed on all the posters suggests, the “Four Lands” in which Shannara takes place is actually some distant-future version of Earth as we know it, complete with references to “ancient humans” and their strange flying machines. In terms of novelty, it’s the rough equivalent of Star Wars being set “long ago” — the rest is all swords, sorcery, and quests.
Said quest centers on three heroes who, in true MTV fashion, appear to have been cast less for their acting skills and more for their “looking good semi-nude in or near running water” skills. Princess Amberle (Poppy Drayton), an elf, is the sort of stock Strong Female Character one expects from a fantasy story originally written in the ’80s; she yearns to defy elven society’s outdated gender roles and join a sort of military/clerical order known as the Chosen, sworn to protect the Ellcrys, a magical tree that keeps a horde of ancient demons trapped in another dimension. (It wouldn’t be high fantasy if there wasn’t a magical tree!) Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler) is a bumbling half-elf who gets the most traditional hero’s journey, leaving his idyllic childhood home with some mysterious “Elfstones” in hand. Surprise! He turns out to be some sort of long-lost elf prince. And then there’s Eretria (Ivana Baquero), a human thief who becomes the subject of the obligatory Han Solo Memorial Redemption Arc.
When the Ellcrys gets sick and starts to die, it’s up to these three to save it. There’s a prophecy, of course, passed down to them by the aforementioned elder statesman, a druid named Alannon (Manu Bennett) who’s rather difficult to take seriously, partly because he’s more Joe Manganiello than Gandalf and partly because his name is pronounced exactly like Al-Anon. A corrupted druid turned newly freed demon leader serves as Big Bad, thereby completing the setup.
Every episode of The Shannara Chronicles is co-written by longtime writing partners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, most recently of AMC’s martial arts staging ground Into the Badlands. The duo are better known for competently managing genre franchises (Herbie: Fully Loaded, Lethal Weapon 4, Smallville) than Sorkin-style repartee, and it shows: Shannara‘s dialogue is heavy on exposition with the subtlety of an anvil — “Only the first seven runners across the line become members of the Chosen,” a character who’s just introduced herself as a “friend and loyal servant” tells us — and sprinkled with contemporary turns of phrase like “Don’t screw it up!” that awkwardly jerk the audience out of the quaint, old-fashioned tone more typical of fantasy epics.
This sounds harsh, but subtle writing isn’t the endgame here, and isn’t in nearly all of fantasy, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings. That would be the burgeoning love triangle between the three leads, as well as their respective coming-of-age stories. They’re clichéd, but clichéd for a reason; it’s no coincidence that every single one of their narratives involves defying parental expectations. The more you watch Shannara, the more you realize it’s essentially a high school drama papered over with gloriously inauthentic CGI. (Exhibit A: Alannon and Amberle’s aunt turn out to be old flames. My notes for this scene simply read “RUFUS AND LILY SITUATION!!!!”)
MTV knows exactly what it’s doing by giving The Shannara Chronicles a Teen Wolf lead-in. Over four and a half seasons, the supernatural series — and its supernaturally pretty leads, who probably didn’t look like believable high schoolers when they were actually high schoolers — has spun its camp into an advantage, not to mention a massive Tumblr following. Shannara aims to follow suit, and if any grown-ups are put off, well, the show wasn’t talking to them anyway.
The Shannara Chronicles premieres tonight at 10 pm on MTV.