The Shannara Chronicles: The Delight of Bad Television

We’ve been watching The Shannara Chronicles. (We only watch series on DVD, so we’re still working our way through season 1). It’s some of the worst television I’ve seen in a while, and I can’t wait to see more.

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One trailer park elf, one spoiled princess, and one edgy ex-bandit, coming right up. Image via IMDb.

Make no mistake, The Shannara Chronicles is terrible. The plot is a meandering soap opera mashed together from two parts Tolkien (a band of hobbits teenagers, occasionally aided by a grumpy wizard druid, must carry the magical ring seed to a distant place through a strange wilderness in order to save the world from a dark lord warlock who mostly just chills out in his tower henge being all evil and stuff) and one part Hunger Games (a tedious teenage love triangle between one girl half-elf boy and two boys girls—one rugged, the other sophisticated—in a vaguely-defined post-apocalyptic North America). Episode scripts are written Mad-Lib style: Dire warning about [peril] goes unheeded, recurring bandit guy threatens to [do something awful], someone explains [plot point] to the confused half-elf dude, princess has to be saved from [unheeded peril].

Yet despite its flaws, Shannara Chronicles manages the trick that most bad television doesn’t: to be both bad and enjoyable. More remarkably, it has managed this feat while remaining convinced of its own seriousness, instead of embracing its camp absurdity like most other beloved bad SFF shows, from Batman to Xena.

The scenery, the design, there are beautiful things under the layers of bad storytelling. Image via IMDb.
There are beautiful things under the layers of bad storytelling. Image via IMDb.

It’s hard to explain why I enjoy Shannara. Taste, of course, is subjective: one viewer’s guilty pleasure is another’s eye-roll marathon. I think there are three things about it that work for me:

  1. The diamonds among the dross. Shannara is a kiwi production and I watch it in much the same spirit that I watch Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies: for the moments of beauty buried in the failings of concept and writing. The visual design is inventive and sometimes startling. Among the actors there are some shining stars like John Rhys Davies, Jed Brophy, and Manu Bennett improving the lackluster scripts with their performances. Plus New Zealand scenery is always worth seeing.
  2. We’re starved for good fantasy. I like classic fantasy. I like it better when it’s done well, but in the absence of that (or when showrunners think that doing fantasy well means adding as much torture, rape, and pointless death as possible), I’ll take it done badly. Plus, it’s refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic story in which the post-apocalypse is a quaint side note to the plot rather than a weight around its neck.
  3. The straight line is funnier than the joke. Comedy is well and good, but sometimes the best laughs come from people who don’t know they’re funny, and if the creators of Shannara know how funny they’re being, they aren’t letting on. I enjoy groaning at the teenage drama, the princess who has to be saved from something once an episode, the elite Elven soldiers who get themselves clobbered by bandits in under ten seconds, and the rest of the show even more when there isn’t a wisecracking sidekick poking me in the ribs and saying Hey, didja see what we did there? Huh? Huh?
Because this is totally how you dress to save the world. Image via IMDb.
Because this is totally how you dress to save the world. Image via IMDb.

In 2016, this terrible year in which some disasters hit with the shock of a thunderbolt and others drag on like a cold you can’t shake, the small-scale disaster of a wonderfully bad tv show is just what I need to take my mind off the rest of the world for a few hours.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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