One series to rule them all? Time for a showdown between The Wheel of Time (Amazon) vs. House of the Dragon (HBO) vs. The Rings of Power (Amazon) vs. Willow (Disney).
One would think that fans of the fantasy genre would be in nirvana with every streaming service cranking out a bonanza of big-budget fantasy series. I have been negligent not writing reviews lately, so I will play catch-up and write one giant review for four of the latest, greatest series!
House of The Dragon
Game of Thrones kicked off the current wave of fantasy shows – and rightfully so. Inspired casting and excellent character-driven writing helped GoT expand its reach outside of typical fantasy fandom, though things fell apart once the show ran beyond the bounds of the source books. (Hardly an original take from me, there.) Fortunately, House of the Dragon brought back the strong character-centric storytelling, assembled an excellent cast, and generally looks and feels like the better seasons of GoT.
In some ways, HoTD surpasses GoT. It is easy to forget how dry season 1 of GoT could be. That is not to say that it was elevated by compelling storytelling and an incredible cast. But introducing such a massive number of characters with long histories, and doing in on a tight budget, made the first season of GoT move along pretty slowly. The writers of HoTD came up with a clever way to streamline the world-building. Instead of alluding to the backstory of the principle characters and conflicts, we get to see them develop over decades. The early episodes leap forward years at a time, showing us huge shifts in character development and changing allegiances.
All in all, I think HoTD is an impressive return to what made GoT great, with some added flourishes. The leaps forward in time are executed beautifully, and it is much more exciting to see things happen then to hear about them in expositional dialogue. Watching players maneuver for advantage in anticipation of a coming conflict makes for a tense, exciting story even without any open fighting. The characters are all centered in one place, rather than sprawled across continents. Some writer also seems to have fixated on the idea that childbirth is absolutely terrifying, and the combination of pregnancy and medieval medicine ends up being scarier than either dragons or torture chambers.
At its best, HoTD explores difficult family relationships. My favorite scenes are between the kind-hearted King Viserys (Paddy Constantine), his mercurial brother Daemon (Matt Smith), and Princess Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy/Milly Alcock). Their struggles as they attempt to balance self-interest and their responsibility to their family and the realm gives the series a strong central conflict. HoTD is off to a strong start, and seems to understand that a core of well-developed characters was the key to GoT’s success. Season 1 did a great job setting the stage, and hopefully we are in for an exciting ride for the rest of the series.
Second Opinion: My partner would cut straight to the chase and declare House of the Dragon the winner of this 4-way showdown. “It’s like The Handmaid’s Tale transplanted into a medieval fantasy.”
The Rings of Power
Like House of the Dragon, The Rings of Power is a show continuing a legacy. As far as I am concerned, The Lord of the Rings movies are still the pinnacle of fantasy filmmaking. The LoTR movies adapted J.R.R. Tolkein’s vast fantasy world with unreserved sincerity. The makers of the LoTR movie gave it everything they had, and everything from the acting to the costumes to the music reflected a level of care and craftmanship rarely seen in any film or show. Just thinking about it makes me want to watch them again. The Hobbit movies did not live up to the LoTR standard, but I was still perfectly happy revisiting Middle-Earth again – even if a heavier reliance on computer effects felt a little more artificial.
If The Rings of Power series has one thing going for it, it is absolutely beautiful visuals. Where HoTD felt a little more drab and lived-in, RoP seems determined to throw the prettiest image possible on the screen whenever possible. The show has also returned to relying more on makeup and costuming for its fantasy creatures, which only adds to the great look and feel of the show. Itmakes me want to watch it on the biggest screen possible so I can take it all in.
As a long-time Tolkein reader, I also could not help but love getting to see more of that world. Númenor! Khazad-dûm! Valinor! Lindon! Yes, this show is so pretty that I got excited about fantasy geography. It was awesome to see such a beautifully-realized world.
I feel the biggest weakness of RoP is that the performances, while sincere and still well-done, felt just a little one-note. Galadriel is always really intense, so it is a little hard to tell when she’s at an emotional high or low. Elrond never deviates far from placid and calm, so any inner conflict he feels does not resonate as strongly as it should. The performances were not bad by any means, but perhaps choosing to make the elven characters always feel dignified and serene created a problem with making them feel relatable. But I feel the actors are good enough that they can strike the right tone in later seasons.
To me, the little people were the highlight of the series. The dwarf prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) and the hobbit-like harfoot Nori (Markella Kavenagh) felt like more relatable, emotional characters. When the show hit a strong emotional note, it was usually those two characters who pulled it off. I never felt bored with The Rings of Power, but I the gorgeous images on screen definitely helped paper over some occasional lulls in the drama.
Second Opinion: We are a house divided – my partner downright disliked The Rings of Power. “It’s like someone wanted to write original fiction, and the Lord of the Rings characters and settings were just a veneer.”
Preliminary Verdict: It’s a tough call in the Battle of the Prequels. House of the Dragon was more coherent, better-written, better-acted, and more consistently excellent episode-to-episode. But with The Rings of Power I felt more immersed in the world, excited by the beauty on screen, and occasionally crying along with Durin or Nori. It is the more flawed of the two, and I cannot pretend not to have a long-standing bias in favor of The Lord of the Rings, but I would give the crown to The Rings of Power. It’s a close call, but I am more excited about spending future seasons in Middle Earth.
The Wheel of Time
The Wheel of Time novels by Robert Jordan are one of the most well-regarded American-written high fantasy series. The series is also infamously long, consisting of 15 books and more than 4.4 million words and out-living its original author (Brandon Sanderson finished the last 3 novels). Given all of this, I was surprised that Amazon’s Wheel of Time series didn’t make a bigger splash.
The show is a fairly faithful adaptation, and has a lot of the elements I liked most from the novels. It deftly juggles a large cast of characters as they navigate a complex world of clashing cultures, political intrigue, religious fanaticism, and a struggle to unite squabbling factions in the face of looming danger. I was particularly pleased with how they cast and presented my favorite characters from the books: Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) and Perrin (Marcus Rutherford). More than that, the show lets character-driven events introduce us to the world without letting the world-building kill the pace of the storytelling.
The Wheel of Time doesn’t commit quite as hard to slick political drama as House of the Dragon and is not quite so pretty as The Rings of Power, but it still has some tight writing and excellent visuals. More importantly, The Wheel of Time seems to be playing with a broader palette than its peers. The characters are more likeable, the show has a better sense of humor, and some scenes are genuinely frightening.
The horror elements, in particular, stand out. The trollocs, WoT’s analog of an orc, never stop feeling threatening. When other fantasy series tend to have hordes of faceless baddies just for our heroes to mow down, even a lone trolloc feels like a serious threat. In the show, when a village is assaulted by trollocs, it results in some of the most harrowing moments I can recall seeing in any fantasy series. Adapting the novels’ description of trollocs to the screen resulted in some truly bizarre, janky-looking monsters, and the show uses that to its advantage.
The Wheel of Time may be based on a book series, but unlike HotD and RoP, there was no prior movie or show adaptation it could lean on to help draw the audience in. In spite of this, The Wheel of Time does a huge amount of world-building without letting it bog down the narrative. It also moves between different characters’ storylines without giving any of them short shrift. It is an impressive feat of adaptation, and I am excited that Amazon has renewed the series for at least two more seasons. Given the books it is based on, the show could go on for who knows how long without running out of source material.
Second Opinion: I was unable to pry my partner away from the Taiwanese drama Light the Night to watch this one. I think they missed out, even if Light the Night is also awesome.
Unlike the other shows, which were based on book series, Willow 2023 is the sequel to a movie. The movie, which had a story by George Lucas, is a little hard to quantify. It follows some familiar fantasy tropes: an evil sorceress queen seeks to kill the baby prophesied to destroy her. Willow (the movie) subverted conventions by having Warwick Davis play the lead and setting up Val Kilmer as a sort of sidekick and comedic foil.
But Willow 1988 was also a hot mess. The accents were all over the place, the tone swing from dramatic to ridiculous at the drop of a hat, and new characters and creatures popped out of nowhere without reason or warning. It might have had the veneer of a high fantasy series, but the characters embodied the humor and sensibility of late 1980’s America to a distracting degree. But, it is still an endearingly original watch if you are willing to ignore whatever expectations you might normally have for a high fantasy movie.
Willow the series is very much in tune with Willow the movie: It’s another hot mess. The pace is all over the place. Sometimes I couldn’t keep up, and at other times it seemed to languish for a whole episode. The accents are still all over the place. The production value and writing varied wildly in quality from episode to episode. In spite of all of that, maybe because it was such a hot mess, Willow is still really fun.
The best thing Willow has going for it is its cast. There’s a lot of personality on display, and I was particularly surprised by how charmed I was by the obvious comedic relief character, Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel). Warwick Davis is still great, and the rest of the cast have lots of neat little moments. For better or for worse, I have a suspicion that a lot of improv was involved. The quality of the show was all over the place, but I watched it through because I wanted to see where the characters wound up.
Unfortunately, I think Willow is the only one of the four series that I can only give a conditional recommendation. It might wink at the camera too much for some viewers, and you definitely have to ride out some rough patches to get to the good stuff. I found it refreshingly different and original, but the ups and downs might try your patience.
Second Opinion: My partner praised Willow for having a lesbian relationship as the main romance like it was no big deal. But they also bailed out when the show started meandering a couple episodes in, and did not finish the series.
And the Winner Is…
Conan! What [fantasy series] is best in life [on streaming]? I think every show here has something to offer, depending on what you like.
- House of the Dragon has outstanding casting, tight writing, and is perfect if you want a dark, serious fantasy drama that hearkens back to the better episodes of Game of Thrones. The downside is that it is a little drab and colorless by comparison to its peers, and Season 1 feels like stage-setting for future seasons (albeit extremely well-executed stage-setting).
- The Rings of Power is visually vibrant and perfect if all you want is to bask in the beauty of Middle Earth. Not every storyline was compelling enough to keep me engaged on their own, but the visuals were so pretty that I didn’t really care.
- The Wheel of Time is a well-balanced blend of storytelling and world-building, supported by an outstanding ensemble cast and beautiful visuals. It’s the first adaptation of a truly great novel series, and the quality of the first season has me excited for future installments. This could become something beautiful.
- Willow is a charming, disjointed, strangely-paced mess. It’s a lot of fun, and some parts are excellent. Other times, it really loses its way. I thought it was a nice change of pace. Willow took some chances. Some paid off, some did not.
For me, The Wheel of Time was the best-in-show. The ensemble cast was awesome, the pacing was fast without being disorienting, the visuals were striking – there was no aspect of the show that didn’t feel like it was crafted with care. But more than anything, I loved getting a look into a world that really felt vast, deep, and lived-in. Maybe it’s because the other shows have baggage that The Wheel of Time does not. Maybe it’s because The Wheel of Time has the advantage of adapting one of the most well-regarded novel series in the fantasy genre. Whatever it is, I am excited for what comes next.