Based on a series of nearly thirty books (as well as some short stories and a comic book) written by Terry Brooks between 1977 and 2016 (with three more supposedly on the way to complete the entire saga), "The Shannara Chronicles" is MTV's big-budget attempt to get in on the "Game of Thrones" market. Set in a post-apocalyptic future where technology and science have given way to a world of magic and demons, this first 10-episode season occasionally struggles with ambition that exceeds its ability and characters that could stand to be a bit more unique, but it's a promising start overall for a show that's already managed to lock in a second season.
The basic story draws from the same classic fantasy inspirations as Star Wars. A headstrong princess, Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton); a naive farm boy, Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler); a tough rogue, Eretria (Ivana Baquero); and a wizened magician, Allanon (Manu Bennett) find their paths unexpectedly linked when a demon known as the Dagda Mor (Jed Brophy) seeks to rally its energies and blanket the world (known as The Four Lands) in darkness. The foursome must work together in an attempt to save the Ellcrys, tree in the Elvin kingdom which is said to prevent demons from crossing over from another world into ours. Although it is Elvin legend, most of the younger generation, including Amberle, believe magic to be a fairy tale, but she is struck by a vision of what is to come when touching the tree. Meanwhile, Allanon is raised from a 30-year slumber, picking up Wil as an apprentice along the way. Wil's father was a magic user who reportedly ended the last war between good and evil, using a set of magic rocks known as Elfstones. Finally, Eretria crosses paths with all four, first as a Rover out to rob each one blind for profit, and eventually as a tentative ally.
Picking out what makes "The Shannara Chronicles" work is hard, because at any given moment throughout the first season, the show is about 75% effective, and its successful aspects vary from moment to moment, none of which ever become enough of a positive trait to really single out. Whether it's a strong dramatic stand-off between the core cast and guest stars like John Rhys-Davies as Amberle's grandfather King Eventine or James Remar as Eretria's ruthless "father" Cephalo, a bit of the expansive fantasy world that Brooks has created, the character dynamics between the three younger characters (mostly romantic), or just the look and feel of the show (mostly impressive), there's always something to keep the viewer interested. The closest thing the show has to an overall strength is just that the cumulative effect of the show's consistency in making its moments of straightforward human drama work, including reluctant bonding under duress (between Amberle and Eretria in "Utopia", and Amberle and Will in "Ellcrys"), personal triumph (for Amberle's uncle Ander, played by Aaron Jakubenko, in "Safehold"), or devastating personal sacrifice for the sake of the greater good (no spoilers). It feels weird to not only pick such a simple triumph but have little to articulate it with, but "Shannara" succeeds simply by drawing the viewer in over time.
That said, while no one element of the show can be cited as a clear winner, one can point to a few superficial elements that help the show go down easier. MTV has always had "mature" programming, but "The Shannara Chronicles" isn't afraid to include a little R-rated violence, which makes the threats the characters face feel more significant. Several find themselves on the receiving end of a sword, while severed heads are a common sight. (Sexual content is also present, but more PG-13.) MTV has also spared no expense in terms of the series' budget, shooting it in the picturesque fantasy vistas of New Zealand. The show's few sets have a decidedly cramped feel to them, but so much of the show takes place outdoors that it hardly matters. Visual effects are also essentially up to a silver screen standard, with the demons that swoop in and attack the characters appearing convincing enough to prevent the illusion from being broken. It's only a shame that the show's direction is rarely stylish enough to enhance these freedoms and advantages rather than simply relying on them.
Unlike the show's positives, it's easier to draw out a negative: an overabundance of plot-driven storytelling. Coincidence and contrivance are too much of an engine on "Shannara", especially when it comes to the disappearance and reappearance of Cephalo. The characters are often stuck needing to retrieve something or someone, while twists and turns are generated by what feels like writers thinking them up rather than a natural progression of the story, and beats that should feel like character triumphs that help round out their arcs end up feeling more like video game quests in which tasks were completed. Things get even more cramped when one factors in the individual episode stories: the overall arc of the season ends up feeling a little sparse, while the little stories in each episode come off overly sitcommy. Stories such as the caretakers the characters meet in "Pykon", or the human village Eretria finds herself in during "Utopia" should come off more like pieces in an overall story than "conflict of the week" plots that will end with the characters more or less back to zero. The season finale brings the story to an interesting cliffhanger, with characters separated and seemingly forever changed. One hopes that when "The Shannara Chronicles" returns, it gives those same characters more room to breathe.
Surprisingly, MTV has stuck with the key art they did for the series when it was first airing, despite a lack of store-display-friendly big faces or bold graphics. The cover depicts the trio standing on a rocky shore in front of my hometown's own Space Needle, collapsed in the ocean. (An odd choice, given the show takes place in California, but hey, I appreciate the thought.) The three-disc set comes in a single-width eco-friendly Amaray case (less plastic, no holes) with a flap tray holding two of the discs, and there is no insert (which means no episode listing).
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (identified only as "Dolby Audio" on the packaging), "The Shannara Chronicles" looks and sounds decent on DVD. Colors are nicely saturated throughout, and there is a decent amount of detail, although dark scenes can look a little murky, and whites may crush a tiny bit. The show's various magic spells, swordfights, and demon encounters sound rich and immersive, helping to expand the sense of scope in the show when compositions get a little cramped. Dialogue is nicely balanced among the action, and the show's pop-rock theme song features some nice bassy notes as well. Curiously, the package makes no mention of subtitles, but there are English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Four extras are included, all housed on Disc 3 and with a "Play All" option. "'The Shannara Chronicles': Behind the Scenes" (18:08) isn't so much an overall making-of documentary as it is a bunch of featurettes glued together into a longer program, with no real rhyme or reason. Most of these extras relate to craftsmanship: the ears, the Ellcrys, the costumes, and the pyrotechnics, while the last one is about John Rhys-Davies. Actually, there's really no reason "The Making of the Dagda Mor" (4:51) or "Exploring New Zealand" (1:24) ought to be separated from the rest of them, but they are. Even the charming but all-too-brief Terry Brooks interview (1:56) feels like part of the same block of TV promotional content. None of it is more than surface-level, with rock music playing over the intros and outros, but there are some fun glimpses of the cast and crew on-set having a good time.
For a show experiencing growing pains, "The Shannara Chronicles" is in a pretty great position: enough pluses for the audience to be rooting for it to improve, yet uneven enough that there's room for it to grow in ways that are truly satisfying. This three-disc set is pretty unremarkable in the extras category, but features a decent standard-def presentation. Recommended.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.