And we’re back with the second installment of the Midseason Premieres 2016 edition of “Don’t Touch That Dial”! Up this time are book adaptations, including a show about magical young adults battling powerful forces who want them dead (The Magicians), a different show about magical young adults battling powerful forces who want them dead (Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments), and a third show about magical young adults battling powerful forces who want them dead (The Shannara Chronicles). I’m sensing a pattern here…
The Road So Far: Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) is miserable. His best friend Julia (Stella Maeve) is too busy coasting on her brilliance and drive to let herself sink into depression. That all changes when Quentin is accepted into a magical graduate school called Brakebills and Julia is not. While Quentin forges friendships with his classmates—sexpot Kady (Jade Tailor), grumpy Penny (Arjun Gupta), unpredictable Margo (Summer Bishil), flamboyant Eliot (Hale Appleman), and shy Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley)—Julia delves headfirst into unregulated street magic. Their paths are parallel but destined to intersect after Quentin et al. inadvertently let The Beast (Charles Mesure), a monstrous magician with ties to the children’s books set in the Narnia-esque fictional world of Fillory, into their world. (Syfy, Mon 9p)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: First off, the special effects in The Magicians is thrilling. It genuinely feels like a unique magical system with its own complicated set of rules and exemptions. There’s a lot to be desired with the characters, though. They still feel largely underdeveloped. Part of the reason why is due to the show running through plots like they’re on sale. On one hand, it means each episode is a collection of events devoid of deeper meaning, leaving them entertaining enough but rather hollow. On the other hand, I’m happy to see them stay in the shallow end of the pool if it means we don’t have to suffer through Syfy failing to adequately portray the terrible events that befall Julia in The Magician King, book two of Grossman’s trilogy.
Taming down Quentin’s moodiness allows the story to breathe a little more and expand beyond his black-cloud perspective. Only trouble is, by reducing Quentin and the other characters’ complex relationships to Fillory, magic, and each other down to its base components, what’s left isn’t very engaging. Sure, there are some lovely moments of candor that are simply perfect, but until they grow from off-handed asides to real development, they don’t add up to very much. We are told, repeatedly, that the magician kids are brilliant but never see them do anything intellectually rigorous. It’s as if the show expects the audience to port over backstory from the books rather than take the time to build interesting characters from scratch.
The power of the books lies not in the young adults but in the moral and psychological subtext to their arcs. Countless think pieces have been written about Quentin Coldwater’s turn as the melancholy, emotionally stunted maybe-maybe-not star of the books, and just as many debate the merits of Julia’s precarious journey and the tragic violence she endures. Very little of that translates from page to screen, however. On a stronger show, that would be a good thing—I’d love to see a different take on the Brakebillians and the street mages—but so far Syfy doesn’t seem up to the task.
TL;DR: Not to complain about a TV show being so drastically different from the books it’s based on…but I really wish the show was more like the books, if not in structure than at least in theme.
Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments
The Road So Far: Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara) has just turned 18 and her whole life has changed. No longer is she the future art school student stuck in an awkward unrequited love triangle between her two best friends, but now she’s a magical demon hunter caught in two more awkward unrequited love triangles. Turns out her mother, Jocelyn (Maxim Roy), was once part of an elite team called the Shadowhunters, rune-enhanced warriors who kill demons and protect humanity. She took her daughter’s memories and also stole an artifact known as the Mortal Cup that apparently everyone is ready to murder to get their hands on. Clary’s father Valentine (Alan Van Sprang), who for some reason lives in an abandoned factory in Chernobyl, is after Clary and the Cup, so she accepts protection and help from a trio of hottie Shadowhunters, Jace (Dominic Sherwood), Alec (Matthew Daddario), and Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia). They are aided by sexy warlock Magnus Bane (Harry Shum Jr.) and hindered by Jocelyn’s manipulative boyfriend Luke (Isaiah Mustafa). Clary must use her newfound skills to defeat Valentine, rescue her mother from his wicked clutches, and secure the Cup, and she has to do it all in trashy outfits and towering heels. (Freeform, Tues 9p)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Shadowhunters is about as disjointed in tone as one would expect from a channel that was formerly known as ABC Family, Fox Family, the Family Channel, CBN Family Channel, and CBN Satellite Service (the latter three part of Pat Robertson’s media empire). You may remember the concept from the film The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones that fizzled out in 2013. The TV writers learned nothing from that flop, however, and have thrown everything onscreen in hopes that some of it sticks. The romance is the worst offender of the busy and needlessly complex plot. Magnus has eyes for Alec, who has eyes for Jace, who has eyes for Clary, but her human and maybe vampire BFF Simon (Alberto Rosende) also has eyes for her, while his bandmate Maureen (Shailene Garnett) has eyes for him. And that’s all in one episode! Look, writers, you have 13 episodes to play with. You don’t have to put every single plot into every single episode. Pace yourselves. Let the story breathe and give the characters a chance to react to their situation.
The young actors are the weakest links, not a good sign for a young adult show. McNamara acts like most young, inexperienced TV actors do, mistaking volume for seriousness and theatrics for drama. Isabelle is a role comprised entirely of neutered sexuality befitting a channel desperate but unable to fully shed its ABC Family association even though the she and Toubia herself would be a much better fit on The CW. But it’s how cheap the show looks that really does it in. Soap operas have better production values than Shadowhunters. The show would be better off having no CGI than the off-brand MS Paint graphics they insist on using. It looks even worse when the actors are required to interact with it, especially given the barely competent editing and stage directions/choreography. At least it’s diverse, right?
TL;DR: There are kernels of potential—I can see why the six-book YA series by Cassandra Clare was so popular—but it all falls flat through uneven pacing, poor casting, underwhelming CGI, and an underfunded budget.
The Shannara Chronicles
The Road So Far: The actual plot for The Shannara Chronicles is crazy expansive (the Wikipedia article for the book the season is based on gave me a headache halfway through) but basically the story opens several hundred years after the humans lay waste to the world and split off into four races. Elves, who had gone into hiding as humans rose to prominence, returned to power just in time to find their ancient magic tree, the Ellcrys, was dying. The tree trapped demons who the elves had fought millennia before, and with each falling leaf, a new demon escapes its prison. Enter Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler), half-human, half-elf, and the last of the Shannara family with a set of powerful Elfstones. He teams up with Elf Princess Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton), a Chosen elf destined to protect the Ellcrys at all costs, and Eretria (Ivana Baquero), a thief who must choose between her adoptive father Cephelo (James Remar) and joining Wil and Amberle on their journey. With the aid of the Druid Allanon, they set off on a series of quests to defend their world, send the demons back to the Four Lands, and ultimately battle The Dagda Mor (Jed Brophy). Back at the palace, King Evantine Elessedil (John Rhys-Davies) clashes with his sons Ander and Arion (Aaron Jakubenko and Daniel MacPherson) over a risky plan to join forces with the Elves’ sworn enemies. (MTV, Tues 10p)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Speaking of unoriginality, The Shannara Chronicles plays at fantasy but fails to build anything substantive with it. Name a fantasy trope, and chances are Shannara has already done it or is just about to. MTV clearly wants it to be the teen version of Game of Thrones, but it’s about as ruthless as Shadowhunters. But where Shadowhunters counts Buffy the Vampire Slayer as its ancestor, Shannara is a direct descendant of Xena: Warrior Princess and Lord of the Rings. It’s straight-up fantasy, with monsters of the week, quests, and Chosen One destinies. Of course, the show’s source material was once a fairly niche novelty—Terry Brooks’ first Shannara book came out in 1977—but in the midst of a glut of high- and low-fantasy fares in contemporary pop culture, it feels more than a little retro. And not in a good way.
At least the CGI looks great. The fantasyland is vivid and the monsters grotesque on quick glance, but study the scene and the seams show. The casting is standard MTV fare—hot young people very talented at looking good in tight clothing and less skilled at staying this side of melodramatic—but it’s the adult actors that keep the show grounded. Rhys-Davies, Remar, and Bennett understand how to balance roles this silly with necessary seriousness while still playing to the cheap seats. Butler, Baquero, and Drayton aren’t bad and seem to improve with each episode, but their inexperience is palpable, especially when asked to keep up with the veterans. I’ll give the show this: They make diverse casting look easy. Major networks, if MTV can be inclusive without being heavy-handed about it, so can you. The ridiculous dialogue keeps the show from ever getting too boring. It’s hard to stay grumpy at a show that wants to be taken seriously but who also has a character shout “Damn your Druid tricks!”? Good thing there are only 10 episodes this season, although you wouldn’t know it based on the extensive worldbuilding and infodumping taking place.
TL;DR: If it can survive to a second season, I suspect things will calm down a bit, but until then if you need a show to watch while doing laundry, The Shannara Chronicles has you covered.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.