Amazon Prime Video’s new television series “The Wheel of Time,” based on the series of novels by Robert Jordan, draws upon a rich, deep history. Or so this viewer, unfamiliar with Jordan’s work, was left to presume when the show began with Rosamund Pike explaining the backstory and the stakes in rushed voice-over.
There’s nothing wrong with voice-over in principle: It can be used well or poorly. But there is a sense, from this show’s first moments, that it’s bursting out with story, so much so that it can’t tell it all subtly, or using the tools of dialogue and characterization. The result is a show that may well please Jordan’s core fandom from the first but which makes for a frustrating watch for viewers who care less about whether “The Wheel of Time” outdoes “Game of Thrones” for spectacle than about whether the show they’re watching is coherent and well-crafted on its own terms.
It’s hard to disentangle “Time” from its “Thrones”-sized ambitions: The surface similarity, and the reputed notion that Amazon is hungry for its own global smash, have been widely noted in the run-up to this new show’s launch. And pitting the two against each other hardly seems forced. Both shows’ origins, both drawn from fantasy novel sequences, are similar. So are the stakes, and the language used to describe them: In “The Wheel of Time,” we’re repeatedly told that a conflagration with “the Dark One” is coming, and that a chosen one — “the Dragon” — must rise to meet him.
Moiraine (Pike) is in search of this Dragon. As a member of a powerful circle of magical women, she finds five young people with great potential, believing one of them to be the reincarnated Messiah figure who might save the world. (These five are, to a one, played by appealing actors, whom we may wish we got to see drawn out at a less breakneck pace.) Moiraine’s faith is deep, and must be: We learn that there’s a high likelihood that those she tests who are not the dragon may die in the attempt.
This premise would, on its face, seem to lend itself well to episodic drama. And yet the series, created by Rafe Judkins, finds itself stranded on various morasses. Part of the issue with “Wheel” is its addiction to spectacle: We seem to be constantly moving toward or coming down from violent conflagration, so much so that the show’s power to startle us quickly dwindles. If this is an attempt to match what “Thrones” became in popular memory, Judkins and his team would be well-advised to recall that much of that drama’s first season was a high-stakes character drama, not a war with a new front opening each episode. This perversely gives the show a pinched and narrow-feeling universe, with its focus limited to what peril lies directly ahead.
This hurts its ability to draw out character. We see more of the five’s skills than of their interactions or group dynamic on a pretty unusual mission, though the actors portraying them try their best. And Pike can easily summon imperiousness, as fans of her films from “Gone Girl” to “I Care a Lot” already know well. But it’s only in the sixth episode that we get to see her do significantly more than intone gravely — during which time many may have lost interest. And the young people she shepherds rarely transcend their roles in the story as cogs in, well, a wheel, significant for how they collectively affect the story but not in and of themselves.
About that wheel: The fictional world of this series is one dominated by a religion that believes fiercely in reincarnation and in something that edges up to predestination. (It’s summoned in an opening credits sequence that literalizes the conceit as on “Game of Thrones”: There, the show’s action was summed up by a game board, here by a spinning loom.) That’s what propels the hunt for the Dragon, as well as the belief in a coming grand war. A powerful woman of magic (Sophie Okonedo) lectures two of Moiraine’s charges: “The wheel does not care if you are young or afraid, petty or weak. It certainly doesn’t care what you want. The wheel calls you to this, whether you can bear it or not. The last battle is coming. What any of us wants now is meaningless. The only thing that matters is what you do.”
It’s worth quoting in a block to lend a sense of the flavor — or flavorlessness — of the writing here, and its tendency to come in large, blunt chunks. It also gives a sense of ways in which the characters’ beliefs work against other aspects of the show that appear ready-made for television. These characters’ duty, from the first, to a conflict greater than themselves tends to blot out who they are; if they’re being told at the midpoint of the first season that what they want doesn’t matter and should be sublimated to the cause, where is there for them to go in seasons ahead?
There is potential here: The sixth episode, of six provided to critics, is the strongest of the show’s early run, even despite containing the seemingly limiting Okonedo monologue. The episode, more generally, expands the show’s vision of what it can do beyond the chase of the week; it shows us new sides of Moiraine, and develops her relationship with her charges well beyond where it had been. If it is to run even half as long as did “Game of Thrones,” “The Wheel of Time” will need to settle into itself and eventually do this sort of work, the sort it had neglected in dazzling the audience with a rush of exposition and of cataclysm. It has already proven it can do grandeur. What it needs to do, now, is to really show us who lives within it.
“The Wheel of Time” will debut its first three episodes on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, Nov. 19.