Before watching Stranger Things, I found myself sitting down to enjoy The Shannara Chronicles. I knew nothing about the story going in, and Saika had yet to write her post on one of the books, so little did I know just how bad this story was going to be. I don’t mean that the story is bad in the sense that it’s irredeemable—I mean that it’s bad because it’s lazy. Despite being based on a subpar book series, I think that The Shannara Chronicles really had a lot of potential that it could have reached had more time and thought been dedicated to it. Unfortunately, while the show has a lot of things I love in stories—queer representation, enemies becoming friends, fantasy in general, and discussions of racism—all too often it felt as if the story was simply running through a checklist and didn’t actually know how to use any of its material.
Spoilers up ahead.
The Shannara Chronicles is one of those shows that’s so bad, I honestly wasn’t sure where to even begin ranting about it. Do I begin with the lackluster plot? The cardboard cutouts pretending to be characters? The shitty worldbuilding? The racism? Or literally every story writing problem I could think of? The worldbuilding in The Shannara Chronicles is especially bad, to the point that the show is a perfect example of everything you should not do when writing a story. It affects the narrative on every level, from the plot to the characters, so I suppose we can start there.
The plot goes as follows: there’s a tree, and so long as it blooms demons can’t roam the world and kill everyone. Now it’s dying. And that’s pretty much it. How or why the tree has these powers is never fully explained, let alone why it’s dying. Maybe it was just old.
To be fair, while the plot is rather simple and generic, with enough backstory and worldbuilding, it would be fine, but I worry that backstory and worldbuilding are not concepts the show is familiar with. Why are there demons? How does this tree stop them? There’s a whole bunch of history in this world, and we don’t get a sense of any of it. At this point, I’m pretty sure there are demons because the narrative needed an antagonist. It’s hard for me to talk about why the worldbuilding is so bad as a point by itself, though, because all of the story’s problems just run into each other and build from there. It is astounding to me that for a story so simple, its problems are so convoluted. The awful worldbuilding sadly doesn’t just stop with the plot; it also ruins how we interact with the characters.
The Shannara Chronicles follows three teenagers on a quest to save the aforementioned tree: the elven princess Amberle, the half-elf farm boy Will who’s descended from a king, and the human girl Eretria, who steals things and looks out only for herself. And that right there feels like the extent of their characterizations. The characters are not so bland that there’s nothing else to them, but here I am trying to write this post and think of any reason why I should care about them or the trials they face. None of them are all that likable, and it also doesn’t help that they don’t seem to like each other all that much either. Amberle hates Eretria because Eretria’s a thief, even though when they first meet, Amberle is the one who’s stealing things. Eretria in turn hates Amberle because the elves are oppressive dicks, which means that she has to be a thief for some reason. When it comes to Will, the only interesting thing about him is that he’s half-elf and half-human and is hated by both races.
I came out of watching this story feeling as though The Shannara Chronicles understands that racism exists, but that it doesn’t understand why. Again, I would say that this is a problem with the worldbuilding, or lack thereof. The show has some really beautiful and well-done sets, but almost no backstory. Elves and humans hate each other. Okay, why? How did all four races get to where they are when the show starts? Why are the elves in charge? How did they oppress Eretria’s people? If the show takes place thousands and thousands of years in the future after our current civilization has died off, why did I have to look that up on Wikipedia to figure out what the hell was going on? On top of all that, there isn’t a sense of culture. Not only do we fail to get any kind of expansion on the world’s racial issues, more often than not all the characters act like they’re from a 21st century white America and not a war-torn society. Their world adheres to the same kinds of social standards ours does—and when we do see human civilization, it feels just like elven civilization. Both societies have awesome makeup and like to party.
It’s hard for me to say whether or not the characters are bland because they’re poorly written or because they don’t live in a believable society they can interact with. I’m pretty sure it’s a combination of both. For a story that uses racial differences as such a big part of its setting, it’s not committed to delving into those issues. The Shannara Chronicles is not just a simple story, it’s a simple story attempting to deal with nuanced and touchy real-world probelms and failing. Take a look at Will, our mixed-race main character, who’s played by a random white person. I’m pretty sure he’s white in the original books as well, but regardless of that, keeping him white is a mistake on the show’s part. In order to avoid racism, he wears a hat to cover his ears, and that’s about the extent of his racial problems. When it comes to Eretria, someone who is a person of color in the books, she’s randomly whitewashed for no reason as well. At one point, she manages to infiltrate the elven castle, and in order to disguise herself she puts on a hood. So not only does the story not explain any of its racial issues or why they exist, it’s also a problem characters can get around using the simplest of disguises.
The only characters of color we really get to see are two Black women—one of them is a villain who used to love Eretria, and the other dies. I suppose now I should go into how The Shannara Chronicles handles LGBTQ+ representation, which also suffers thanks to the worldbuilding. Early on in the story, Eretria and Will have sex. Following that, Will and Amberle realize that they like each other for some reason, because what we really needed was a love triangle that pits two female characters against each other. However, later on, Eretria also tries to have sex with Amberle, and I actually found myself excited for the possibility of a polyamorous relationship. This gets shut down really quickly—Amberle rejects Eretria and then Eretria’s attraction to her never comes up again.
Again, I feel as though the writers understand that queer people exist, but they don’t understand what kinds of problems they may or may not face. Eretria’s not queer in the original books, and I would welcome this change in sexuality here, but nothing comes from this. It’s just something that was added in for the sake of representation with no thought behind it. Is this world open and accepting of queer people, and if yes, why? Or do queer people experience oppression? I find it hard to believe that in a world filled with races who hate each other for being different, anyone who isn’t heterosexual would be accepted as normal. This then leads me to question why Eretria would flirt with an elven princess, someone responsible for her oppression, at all. In the following episodes, Eretria and Amberle find themselves alone together and are forced to get along in order to avoid elf-hunters who want to cut off Amberle’s ears. We learn that one of the hunters is Eretria’s former lover, and this really would have been the best time to reveal her sexuality. Maybe same-sex relationships are frowned upon, but after gaining trust in each other, Amberle could have set aside her own prejudices for the sake of friendship. Eretria in turn might have felt exposed and frightened over Amberle discovering this part of her.
Of course, doing that would require actual character development and some in-depth worldbuilding to let us know what societal values the characters hold. I’m pretty sure, though, that that’s all a little more nuanced and complicated than The Shannara Chronicles is capable of handling. Suffice it to say, The Shannara Chronicles is a horrible television show and I’m surprised that it’s getting a second season.