Returning to the Four Lands: A Shannara Chronicles Roundtable

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV 2016)

Season one of The Shannara Chronicles came to a dramatic close, then spiraled into a cliffhanger that promised more adventures in the post-apocalyptic fantasy world. Based The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks, the show takes us on the journey of half-elf Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler), human rogue, Eretria (Ivana Basquero), and the elf princess, Amberle (Poppy Drayton), who, under the guidance of the druid Allanon (Manu Bennett), must save the dying Ellcrys in order to defeat the horde of demons that it has held in check for centuries.

MTV’s target demographic is ages 12 to 34, but Shannara likely brought the network a new set of genre viewers looking to fill the dearth of fantasy shows. Drawing on the fandom established by decades of Brooks’ Shannara stories, the series earned the network a whopping 1.77 million viewers—the network’s highest rating for a new series. It also scored high in digital downloads and increased MTV’s app and website traffic significantly.

With season two now confirmed, Al Rosenberg, Wendy Browne, and Kat Overland confess that they are pleased with this announcement. How did the little MTV epic fantasy that no one expected to be worth anyone’s time, managed to worm its way into our hearts with just ten episodes? Why should you be hopping over to MTV to watch it too? We shall tell you!

What was your first Shannara experience? Had you read any of the books prior to the show?

Al Rosenberg: I saw an ad for the TV show after it had begun and quickly played catch-up. I didn’t even know it was based on books until I finally paid attention to the title sequence halfway through the season. I might pick up the first book, if I can find it at the library.

The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (Random House 1977)
The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (Random House 1977)

Wendy Browne: No, no not the first book, Al! The Sword of Shannara was the very first book added to my Did Not Finish pile. I gave it another chance decades later, encouraged by its availability in audiobook format, my friend’s hilarious commentary, and the fact that my attention was otherwise occupied by actually watching paint dry as I renovated my kitchen. I am very glad that the showrunners decided to base the series on the sequel, instead of Brooks’ enthusiastic Lord of the Rings for Dummies. Fortunately for Brooks, I’d also read the first two books of his Genesis of Shannara series, which were much better and were my first introduction to post-apocalyptic fantasy.

Kat Overland: I’ve definitely read The Sword of Shannara as a kid, and I’ll be real: I have absolutely no recollection of it at all other than it didn’t inspire me to pick up the next one. I’d seen that MTV picked it up and decided to swing by the Shannara panel at NYCC last year, because I’m a fan of Spartacus and Manu Bennett was going to be there. The preview and the panel convinced me to give it a try (that and as a Teen Wolf fan I’m easily swept up into whatever show plays after it).

What were your expectations when you sat down to watch The Chronicles of Shannara? Did you watch it live on television or via the MTV site?

Al: All I knew was that it was a show about elves in the dystopian future, and I am a sucker for dystopian fiction. I watched it on the internet and just wanted what I always want in TV: Immersive drama, racial and sexual diversity, lots of sexy time, and rad clothing.

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV 2016)
Emilia Burns as Commanda Diana Tilton

Wendy: I was surprised when I watched the first episode, to see diversity happening—among the elves no less, which isn’t typical in fantasy stories where elves usually represent the perfect whiteness of being. The majority of the main cast is pretty pale, still. Frankly, my expectations of the show weren’t high, especially since it was airing on MTV. I really only came for Allanon. And by that, I mean Manu Bennett playing Allanon. I had no hopes of this show actually being any good, but there is so little high fantasy on TV that I am willing to accept even the cheesy ones. I binge watched Legend of the Seeker a few years ago, I figured I’d be getting much of the same here: Dark fantasy, bad CGI, and characters I could care about. Since I didn’t set my hopes too high, I wasn’t disappointed and was even pleasantly surprised by the CGI, which wasn’t bad at all. The acting was reasonably good, I got to look at Manu Bennett, and appreciate the whole thing as the panoramically beautiful fantasy fluff that it was.

I also loved the music, beginning with the opening theme, “Until We Go Down” by Ruelle. And then there are those gorgeous costumes. Strappy jackets, lots of leather. I’m fond of corsets and love that the ones worn by the women here were both sexy and (mostly) practical—possibly even comfortable.

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV 2016)

Kat: I watched the first episode live on TV after Teen Wolf and was surprised that I was eager to watch more at the end of it, to be honest. I was thinking it would be “good for a TV show”—the NYCC preview looked impressive, but I wasn’t sure if MTV could pull off fantasy. It turns out it does fantasy just fine, especially if it’s fantasy with dramatic teens, so it was even better than I was expecting. I was excited to see Manu Bennett get to play a heroic wizard—at the NYCC panel he talked about how important it was to be a brown man playing a totally unambiguously good character, and how he never got to see that as a child. I, like Wendy, was really pleased to see racial diversity among elves in that first episode.

Did the show meet those expectations? How did you feel about the characters and their relationships and their struggles?

Al: Uh. I’d say half of my expectations were met. This show is super melodramatic, which is something I like in my easy watching TV shows. However, it’s really white, and there’s more queer baiting than actual queerness. The clothes are great though.

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV 2016)
Amberle: So it’s Rover custom to jump into bed with every guy you meet? Eretria: Honestly? It’s not just guys

Wendy: Since I had few expectations, I was surprised by a lot of things, such as the diversity, though it ultimately ended up being baited and cursory. I liked that it didn’t dwell too much on the two women being catty and jealous of each other, and that their relationship with Wil actually turned into a meaningful friendship between the three of them. I hold out hope for a proper polyamorous relationship in the future, but I suspect that won’t happened.

I also didn’t expect Ander to play such a prominent role and wish there was a bit more time to spend with him to flesh out his struggle with his status as the elf kingdom prince and then king. There wasn’t a lot of time to do anything, really, and I’m surprised everything was crammed into a single season, but I guess they weren’t necessarily expecting another one.

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV 2016)
Ander (Aaron Jakubenko) and Allanon (Manu Bennett)

Kat: I think it is slightly above “good for an MTV show,” though the acting and pacing can be rather uneven. I am VERY invested in Amberle and Eretria and their knife-wielding friendship and flirtation, and find Wil charming at times, gormless and infuriating at other times. I was most disappointed with the fact that Manu Bennett is the only main character of color, with Commander Tilton being criminally underused. The other POC tend to either end up being dead, evil, or both, which is a bummer. I like that Eretria is queer/bisexual and is shown to actually be interested in men and women—she has an ex-girlfriend and everything! The pacing made it a little hard for me to be really invested in their struggles (though Allanon deserves a break!), but generally I want them to succeed.

If you have read the books, how does the show compare?

Wendy: I recently finished The Elfstones of Shannara, upon which season one is based, and while it’s a better book than its predecessor, it’s still ponderous and the characters are dull. The show brings them to life, first by making them slightly more mature and self-sufficient. Amberle in particular is more childlike in the book, which would have been fine in a television show, but obviously MTV wanted that blessed YA love triangle. While the romance angle was important to the show, I’m happy they did work the friendship angle, which wasn’t quite as strong in the book, though Brooks tried.

I love the idea of all the fantasy races (except elves) having their roots in our reality, and I really loved being able to see that translated into the show, though I had to suspend my disbelief somewhat when it came to the rusted out vehicles and cities and artifacts that were still reasonably intact after apparently centuries of decay and evolution (which is, ironically, the opposite complaint I have of The 100, where only three generations of have passed, but the grounder survivors on earth seem to have lost their connection and awareness to almost every technological advancement).

Do you have a favorite character or scene?

Al: I kind of hated everyone? I suppose my favorite main character was Ivana Baquero as Eretria. Though when I explained the show to my bestie and said this character’s name, she accused me of pronouncing “Eritrea” incorrectly. I just love her face, always irritated:

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV 2016)
Eretria’s WTF face

I also really enjoyed this article about the languages spoken in the show.

WendyMy default favourite character is Allanon. In the first book, he was so obviously based on Gandalf that it hurt. Brooks’ descriptions of his constantly billowing cape were the only saving grace, because they offered my friend and I hours of giggles. When we heard that Manu Bennett would be playing him, we were totally here for this equation:

Manu Bennett didn’t let me down as Allanon. I wished for more scenes with him, but, like Gandalf, the character acts more as a facilitator and a foil to the demon leader, the Dagda Mor, and only lends his support at pivotal moments. Still, the show gave us a deeper look into Allanon’s inner desires as the last druid. Perhaps the series will pursue this more closer in future episodes.

Kat: My favorite scene was absolutely Eretria giving Amberle a letter jacket, because it was at that moment that I realized that Terry Brooks must actually be perfect for an MTV adaptation. A dystopian high fantasy story and a girl is putting a letter jacket tenderly around another girl’s shoulders in a high school, but one of those girls is an elf? I’m here for it, I’m here for all of it.

Other than those two, I’m really into Party Uncle Elf Ander, though I didn’t expect him to be a real character at the beginning. Really, it’s his jackets—they’re great, and I want them all.

Terry Brooks is still writing Shannara books like a fiend. Does the show compel you to read more about this world while you wait for season 2?

Al: I’m sure the withdrawal will start soon enough and I will be asking around for a copy. I am CERTAINLY going to try to get my hands on this game.

Wendy: There is a game? Ahahaha! Not sure I will play it, but the show did inspire me to read Elfstones, and I will likely pick up the third book in his Genesis of Shannara series which takes place shortly after the nuclear apocalypse that sent the Four Lands spiraling into the fantastical realm we have now.

Kat: Honestly, I’m not that compelled to—the show is trashy enough to enjoy, but I don’t know that I want to invest that much time into reading them. But Terry Brooks seems like a sweetheart and was so excited about everything at the NYCC panel that I might end up reading at least Elfstones just for comparison’s sake.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.

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