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TV Review: MTV's 'The Shannara Chronicles' a first-rate production set in a fantasy world

January 4, 2016 Updated: January 4, 2016 at 4:10 am
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photo - The world of the Four Lands in "The Shannara Chronicles" is a mix of beautiful real-life locations (the series is filmed in New Zealand but set in the Pacific Northwest), gorgeous special effects and detailed sets. The TV series premieres Tuesday on MTV.
The world of the Four Lands in "The Shannara Chronicles" is a mix of beautiful real-life locations (the series is filmed in New Zealand but set in the Pacific Northwest), gorgeous special effects and detailed sets. The TV series premieres Tuesday on MTV. 

"The Shannara Chronicles"

Cast: John Ryhs-Davies ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Lord of the Rings"), Manu Bennett ("Spartacus" "Arrow"), Austin Butler ("The Carrie Diaries"), Poppy Drayton ("When Calls the Heart"), Ivana Baquero ("Pan's Labyrinth"), James Remar ("The Warriors," "Sex and the City")

Airs: The two-hour premiere airs on MTV on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

The premise: "The Shannara Chronicles" is a 10 episode event series based on the best selling fantasy book series by Terry Brooks. Set thousands of years in the future, the story follows the path of three heroes. Elf-Human hybrid Wil (Austin Butler), Elvin Princess Amberle (Poppy Drayton), and Human Rover Eretria (Ivana Baquero) embark on a quest to stop an evil demon army from destroying the Earth, now known as the Four Lands. The series is centered on the Shannara family, whose descendants are magical beings who reshape the future.

This first season is based on "The Elfstones of Shannara," the second book in the series."The Shannara Chronicles" is written and executive produced by Al Gough and Miles Millar. Jon Favreau, Jonathan Liebesman, Terry Brooks and Dan Farah also serve as executive producers.

Highs: The world of the Four Lands is breathtaking. I've never seen anything like it on a television series. A mix of beautiful real life locations (the series is filmed in New Zealand but set in the Pacific Northwest), gorgeous special effects and detailed sets make for an incredibly immersive world. Because the show is set on Earth in the distant future, you'll see familiar landmarks like giant satellite dishes, hollowed out buildings and even a partially collapsed Space Needle. The blend of recognizable features with ruins and fortresses makes the Four Lands an imposing and mysterious place.

Al Gough and Miles Millar are writers and executive producers of "The Shannara Chronicles," so it's not surprising that the "Smallville" co-creators have done a great job of creating interesting roles for their young and mostly unknown cast. Poppy Drayton and Ivana Baquero are excellent as strong, determined women of action. And viewers will certainly relate to fish out of water Wil, played by Austin Butler. Early in the series the half elf is just as confused about what's going on as the audience. His sense of humor helps lighten the mostly serious tone of the show.

The cast is balanced by the always excellent John Rhys-Davies and the underrated Manu Bennett. Rhys-Davis, with his distinct baritone voice and regal manner, portrays a king who commands respect. Bennett, the break out star from the "Spartacus" series, gets to do what he does best - speak fancifully and swing a sword. This series, which feels like an unusual concoction of "The Lord of the Rings" and The CW's "The 100," is an excellent fit for both actors.

Lows: I was so engrossed in "The Shannara Chronicles" that it took me an hour into the two-hour pilot to realize I didn't have a firm grip on the plot. There are plenty of fantastical things I've heard of before that exist in the Four Lands - elves, demons, magic, druids, shape shifters - but I've never seen them in this combination. As someone who hasn't read the books, there were a lot other things that confused me as well. Why are these green elf stones such a big deal? How is this tree bleeding? What the heck are "the chosen"?

There's no baseline introduction into this universe so viewers will initially be confused by so many new names, places and people. The characters of Wil and Allanon (Bennett) end up filling in some plot holes but not until at least halfway through the premiere. "The Shannara Chronicles" refuses to hold your hand with verbose exposition, you're just expected to jump right in.

Grade: (A-): While viewing "The Shannara Chronicles" I felt like I was watching a big budget Showtime or HBO series. This isn't a knock on MTV, quite the contrary, it's a testament to the incredible effort they've put into this new show. First rate production value, interesting characters and an intriguing story make for a world well worth escaping to.

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Gazette media columnist Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.

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