It’s almost too easy to list the qualities “The Shannara Chronicles” does not possess, originality chief among them. The TV show is based on a series of books by Terry Brooks, who in turn modeled his world closely on that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” saga. Elves, quests, magic objects and demons are all present and accounted for in this tale. No spoiler alert is needed to point out that the fate of the world hangs on the dangerous quest of an unlikely protagonist. But a television series doesn’t have to be unique to be worth watching, and fantasy fans hankering for a breezy (if low-budget) epic are likely to find things to enjoy in this energetic saga. The subset of TV viewers who liked to spend a lazy Saturday bingeing on the adventures of Xena or watching “Legend of the Seeker” may well enjoy what “The Shannara Chronicles” brings to the elvish council table.
Many networks continue to hop on the “Game of Thrones” bandwagon, but those who seek out “Shannara” aiming to see an HBO-style budget are bound to be disappointed. Some of the show’s interiors are not much to write home about, and though the costumes are generally good examples of the expected medieval-meets-MTV aesthetic, one or two outfits are cringe-inducing. On location, however, “Shannara” often shines. It was shot in New Zealand, which has some of the most picturesque and evocative scenery in the world, and the show’s creative team uses the region well as it efficiently sketches out the story of an elf kingdom in danger, and the unlikely allies who are called upon to save it.
But pretty scenery on its own isn’t enough, and it can’t be denied that “Shannara Chronicles” is not exactly unpredictable; the plot recalls those of many fantasy sagas, not just the stories of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. That said, the show has a lively forward momentum, a sly sense of self-awareness (elf-awareness?) and strong casting in key roles. As if the source material weren’t a major enough link to the “LoTR” universe, two capable actors from Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films appear in “Shannara.”
John Rhys-Davies plays an elf king, and he’s a canny enough character actor to bring both gravitas and a light comedic touch to the role. And even if he does overdo things just a little, who can blame him? Wearing an elf crown almost requires an actor to go to a bold and colorful place. Like the most able members of this show’s solid cast, however, Rhys-Davies doesn’t stray into pomposity or overdose on melodrama. One of the most refreshing things about this earnest series is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which would have been a fatal move for an MTV program about pointy-eared elves. Another factor in “Shannara’s” favor: Its first season is only 10 episodes long, and for fantasy aficionados, the first four installments (including the two-hour premiere) should fly by fairly quickly.
Manu Bennett, who plays the show’s Aragorn equivalent, Allanon, displays the dry sense of humor familiar to fans of “Arrow” and “Spartacus,” as well as the fighting skills honed on those shows and in the “Hobbit” films. Questionable casting in this role would have likely sunk the entire enterprise, but Bennett is “Shannara’s” valuable and quietly charismatic anchor. He’s almost reason enough on his own for genre fans to give this mystical tale a whirl: He has fun with his priest-warrior role while mixing in the kind of seriousness that allows the viewer to buy into the life-or-death qualities of the central quest.
That endeavor involves the Elf princess Amberle, played with winning sincerity by newcomer Poppy Drayton. Austin Butler does yeoman’s work as Wil, a simple country boy who (no shocker here) finds out he must embrace a much greater destiny. James Remar has a ball as the sly leader of a thieving clan — who knew the dependable supporting actor would look this good in post-apocalyptic biker wear — and Butler and Bennett in particular navigate the show’s mix of humorous asides and heart-pounding danger with real skill. A few members of the supporting cast are interchangeable or eminently forgettable, and some lines of dialogue land like poorly forged tin on the anvil, but the cannier performances and some fairly impressive CGI hellscapes are often able to divert the viewer from the show’s weaker elements.
TV itself is something of a fantasy wonderland these days; there’s a show for almost every taste and predilection. It’s hard to imagine “Shannara” garnering a crossover audience beyond the fantasy realm, but it’s to the drama’s credit that it does not try to be all things to all viewers. What’s refreshing about this approachable saga is that it knows exactly what it is, and it sprints though its familiar paces with a game spirit.
Sure, “Shannara,” which harks back to the golden age of syndicated genre fare, is a standard quest journey in which there are troll, gnomes, living trees and magic books, and characters say things like, “If Allanon is here, there are dark days ahead.” But there’s conviction in the show’s execution, which features galloping romps on horseback, suitably angry demons and other lines like, “My ancient Druid’s a little rusty, maybe you could fill me in?” The truth is, genre-loving families and fantasy fans who want to travel to another world but don’t want to fork over the admission to a multiplex (or a premium channel) could do worse than this. And speaking of those halflings from the Shire, this cheerfully cheap series, if nothing else, is less bloated and more streamlined than large chunks of those expensive and frequently mind-numbing “Hobbit” films.