MTV embraces fantasy in 'The Shannara Chronicles'

Published Jan. 4, 2016

Since its Buggles-led inception nearly 35 years ago, MTV has been the arbiter of cool — unearthing bands, genres of reality television and of course the very idea of a music video. But the winds have shifted, and the network is now seeking a different sort of magic: the actual kind.

Tonight at 10, the network will launch a story of elves, trolls, dwarfs and a formidable demonic presence that has nothing to do with Ozzy.

The series is The Shannara Chronicles, and it turns work from an old novelistic master, Terry Brooks, into a movie-style epic as well as an intimate story of millennials in search of love and identity. (Millennial actors, anyway because this actually takes place in a future millennium.) Spells are cast, mysterious trees are guarded, and secret powers are tapped into.

"The fantasy genre has become much cooler," said Mina Lefevre, who heads scripted development at MTV. "Even and especially for females, who are a big part of our audience, the nerd factor has dropped from it.''

Shannara is a counterpart of sorts to HBO's Game of Thrones and seeks both to ride that wave and set itself apart from it.

Nor is it just genre that makes Shannara a significant bet for MTV. The 10 episodes of the most expensive original production in the network's history were shot in New Zealand, Lord of the Rings style, and come with a top creative pedigree.

It includes Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who developed, sold and write on the show; Battle: Los Angeles director Jonathan Liebesman, who directed the first episode; and Iron Man director Jon Favreau, who serves as an executive producer.

"We're going for something big and epic," Favreau said. "The beauty and the scope is something that I don't think has quite been done a lot on the small screen before."

Chronicles derives from The Elfstones of Shannara, the second book in Brooks' Shannara trilogy. Published in 1982, it was an early entry in the oeuvre of Brooks, a fantasy author who both preceded the heyday of George R.R. Martin and makes him look like a minimalist. Over dozens of novels and short-story collections, spin-offs and mainline mythologies, Brooks follows the stories of many generations in the Four Lands, a future place where cataclysmic wars among humans have yielded a new order.

In this vaguely North American topography, an unnamed holocaust has long wiped out most of the humans, leaving various troll, dwarf, elf and other species to endure. Theirs is a pre-industrial, forest-dwelling, horse-riding existence, and the groups sometimes battle one another, as well as a set of demonic presences tenuously trapped in a place called the Forbidding.

By adapting Elfstones, MTV has availed itself of the opportunity for two demo-friendly lead protagonists — Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler), a 20-ish healer who in the opening two-hour special is first beginning to discover his powers after a tragedy, and Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton), an anointed daughter of sorts who lends the proceedings a strong, Hunger Games-style heroine.

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Despite the complex back stories and stylized costumes, creators are hoping for a thematic relevance. This is a story of young people finding themselves, and their behaviors and dilemma are not that different from those of a young person today.

"These are mutations of humans — not Narnia, not Westeros, not Middle-earth," Gough said. "It's our world, thousands of years in the future, and I think that makes it different than a lot of the material that's come before."

Shannara will not go for the big provocations of Thrones. There's not likely to be a massacre of main characters; if there's a wedding at all, it will be a much lighter shade of red.

Favreau calls the show "just a little bit softer" — which, unlike Thrones, will make younger teens more likely to watch it (or more accurately, their parents to sanction it).

"It may look like this classic fantasy world, but there's a lot of unrequited love, love triangles, slight jealousy and the messiness of love, which always resonates," said Drayton, the 24-year-old British actor who plays Amberle. "It's about young people trying to find out who they really are. I think MTV audiences can relate to that. We all can relate to that."