By Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times
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.
On Tuesday, 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. Ten years ago, this would have been a very different discussion.”
Yes, the network of “Real World” and “Jersey Shore” is now channeling Tolkien.
“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, though whether it can do both simultaneously is among the more interesting questions of the winter television window.
Nor is it just genre that makes “Shannara” a significant bet for MTV. Self-acknowledged as the most expensive original production in the network’s history, the series’ 10 episodes were shot in New Zealand, “Lord of the Rings” style, and come with a top creative pedigree.
It includes the “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’ original “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, spinoffs 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.
Starting with a contest Amberle wins to become part of the Chosen (a kind of inner circle guarding a mystical tree), the debut soon sets Amberle on a quest outside her elfin kingdom, where she will meet Wil, on his own journey. The larger political context — it is here where “Shannara” gets most “GOT”-like — has the elves (looking and acting like humans, though with pointy ears that stigmatize them) prepare for war against a longtime enemy. Inevitably, Amberle and Wil’s quest plays into this.
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,” said Gough. “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” also is in keeping with the modern trend of putting young women on an equal playing field in genre stories, with Amberle as well as Eretria (Ivana Baquero), an outlaw scavenger with a co-lead role.
“These are two extraordinary female characters who are very different — they have conversations and a journey that isn’t about romance. Yes, that’s a part of it, but they also have real problems, real dilemmas, real strength that will all be relatable to a contemporary female audience,” Millar said.
It would be both correct and overly simple to call “Shannara” a basic-cable answer to “Thrones.” The idea of bringing a cinematic rigor to the fantasy genre and to introduce it to legions of fans who may not dedicate themselves to it on a regular basis certainly runs parallel.
But “Shannara” will not go for the big provocations of “GOT,” a factor that may slightly slow its social-media traction but will also avoid that show’s tendency to polarize its viewing base. 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.
In that vein, “Shannara” will also, despite the occasional arrow battle or amorous exchange, not move in a hard-R direction — Favreau called this 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).
“Shannara” was a priority for Susanne Daniels, the former WB executive who shook up MTV several years ago, ushering in the era of slick millennial scripted drama such as “Finding Carter” and the “Scream” TV series. Daniels left this summer for YouTube shortly after “Shannara” wrapped — part of an exodus that also included the departure of President Stephen Friedman in September — and the series is now being guided by Daniels’ replacement Lefevre, who was working closely on the show from the start.
She will face some challenges. “Game of Thrones” won’t return until April, but fellow genre phenomenon “The Walking Dead” picks up the second half of its season in February, midway through “Shannara’s” run, potentially taking up some oxygen.
Maybe equally important, millennials’ interest in “Shannara” (MTV’s core demographic is 12- to 24-year-olds) could be tempered by the period of the source material. The target audience is certainly unlikely to be familiar with Brooks’ books, and it’s an open question whether the ‘80s-era material will speak to 21st-century young people.
Series principals who are in that demographic say that it will.
“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 actress 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.”
The network, for its part, is hoping that its large-scale production values — not to mention the sheer novelty of the gamble — will help attract viewers.
“This is an undertaking that I don’t think MTV has done before and frankly basic cable doesn’t really take on very often,” Lefevre said. “I think the audience is going to be surprised. They would have expected that we’d do another teenager with another superpower. And this is unexpected. That will be good for them, and I think it’s good for us. The MTV brand has always been provocative and pioneering, and this keeps us moving in that direction.”