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Fans of The Witcher book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski have been waiting to see Henry Cavill take on the leading role of Geralt of Rivia for over a year. While the story has been adapted into comics, several extremely popular video games and even a previous television series, there hasn't been a live-action version of the tale with this much star power or money behind it. The show is now officially available to Netflix subscribers, and we've finally gotten reviews to let us know whether this fantasy story will have us hooked, or leave us wishing Amazon's Lord of the Rings show was already done.
Game of Thrones comparisons have been inevitable for The Witcher in the lead up to its debut, but it sounds like this show will be far more divisive than the HBO meg-hit was in its first few seasons. Let's start, though, with some positives, shall we? The Verge's Andrew Webster was pretty high on The Witcher, and after praising the show's ability to balance an epic, overarching story with monster-of-the-week precedural-style storytelling, Webster summed up why the show should work for fantasy fans, whether you know the books and / or video games or not:
As a TV show, The Witcher is particularly refreshing in an era full of nihilistic fantasy stories inspired by Game of Thrones. Yes, the show gets brutal at times...What makes The Witcher feel different, though, is in the details. These stories aren’t full of people being awful for the sake of it; they’re making choices based on love or survival, and then things go wrong. What makes The Witcher so compelling is how it delves into these gray areas, exploring why people do what they do. By the end, you’ll have some measure of sympathy for almost everyone, no matter how irredeemable they might seem at first.
Matthew Aguilar, from ComicBook, also enjoyed The Witcher, giving it 4 out of 5 stars and noting that viewers will be hooked on the performances, sense of humor and creative creature work they see as the series develops. There was a lot of source material to pull from when constructing The Witcher, so if you're worried about how the storytelling plays out, Aguilar says that the tonal shifts you'll notice actually work in the series' favor:
The Witcher only works if you buy into the setting and the tone, and while it's a delicate balancing act, the series manages to pull it off. The tone can shift on a dime, and that adaptability is what makes it so unique, following romantic moments not with a heavy hand but instead a lighthearted touch that doesn't feel quite like anything else out there. There's plenty of magic and other trademarks of the fantasy genre, but, like the books, the show more often than not finds a way to spin those tropes with humor and complexity. Geralt and Yennefer are truly conflicted individuals, who often are fighting against the myths and legacies they've left behind in the past, even if they don't often admit it, and that breathes new life into an otherwise well-worn genre.
Unfortunately for The Witcher, at the time of this roundup, there were far more middling or negative reviews than glowing ones, and Ben Travers of IndieWire found himself torn while watching, saying that the show ends up being a bit more of a mishmash of elements than one would expect from something pulled from beloved source material. But, that very thing is what makes The Witcher work sometimes, and led Travers to rate the show as a solid B:
Piecing together what’s going on at any given time in The Witcher is both impossible and insignificant. Netflix’s big-budget fantasy adaptation looks like Game of Thrones and plays like The OA — an extravagant budget fueling a ludicrous premise. Frankly, it should be a catastrophe, and yet the batshit energy driving a slew of increasingly odd choices makes for a pretty entertaining spectacle.
The Witcher isn’t for everyone, and it’s not trying to be. The soapy scheming that drove people to choose sides in Game of Thrones isn’t here. Neither is the tender romance of Outlander, the big-minded ambition of The OA, or the coherence of, I don’t know, Vikings. But that’s OK. The Witcher is The Witcher, and nothing else matters. Just go with it.
Daniel Fienberg, of The Hollywood Reporter, had similar feelings about the shifting tone of The Witcher, but he was not as appreciative of it, and ultimately felt that it led to show going back and forth between levels of enjoyability that ranged from a somewhat non-enthusiastic "occasionally" to the even more abysmal "depending on your patience." Either way, he feels that only current diehard Witcher fans will appreciate the show, because there's not much to praise it for:
When The Witcher is taking itself seriously, it's fairly bad. It aspires to be lofty high fantasy and instead becomes almost endless exposition and silly names...Any attempt to invest on a human or emotional level with the characters or their circumstances is completely pointless and that becomes rather frustrating when episodes stretch well past an hour apiece.
When The Witcher isn't taking itself seriously? It's reasonably fun. Fortunately, it's not taking itself seriously a lot of the time.
This is the level on which one can review The Witcher. It works less well when critiqued on more conventional terms. There's too much uninspired talking to praise the writing, too many stagnant framings and too much erratic pacing to praise the directing. The action set pieces aren't bad, but they feel like they're distributed sparingly as allowed by budget, not as dictated by narrative.
As you can see, there will be a lot to take in if you choose to sit down for a viewing of The Witcher this weekend or over your holiday break, and Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly had so much trouble with the show after only a half hour that he felt the need to bring in colleague Kristen Baldwin for a reviewing assist. I'm sure that something like this has happened before in the history of reviewing television, but it's not at all common and did not bode well for the final verdict from the outlet, which gave it an F:
Baldwin: I did sit through the second episode, which was notable for a few reasons. (Spoiler: None of those reasons include, “Because it was good.”) Henry Cavill gets far less screen time in the second hour — and he has to share his few scenes with a very, very annoying traveling bard...[who] makes up tunes about abortion and says things like, “There I go again, just delivering exposition.”
The Witcher is also packed with confusing conflicts and long-held rivalries that require a lot of explanation but still manage to make no sense...So yeah, this is some high-school level Dungeons & Dragons role play with a multi-million-dollar budget.
Franich: I haven’t played the games, but the pilot has certain tropes from that medium exported without imagination to television...I’m definitely not averse to the wild extremes of this genre but the first episode felt like cheese gone moldy. That nude bordello really edged the whole vibe in a fratty direction, and the long running time required a lot of take-forever talk about prophecies and destiny.
I do think there’s room for a mature-content fantasy romp in our post-Game of Thrones universe, but eternal exposition runs alongside a tin ear for dialogue. This is the first TV show I’ve ever seen that would actually be better with commercial breaks.
Well, we can all decide for ourselves whether or not The Witcher is our cup of fantasy-laden tea right now, as the series' full Season 1 is currently available, with Season 2 already having been greenlit for some time in the future. Be sure to check out what else you'll be able to watch in early 2020 with our winter / spring TV premiere guide!