For nearly a decade, Hollywood has been attempting to recreate the early magic of HBO’s sprawling fantasy epic Game of Thrones, and recently, TV fans have finally started seeing the fruits of this labor. Between His Dark Materials, American Gods, The Witcher, and Shadow and Bone, fantasy is definitely having A Moment. But with the exception of Starz’s adaptation of Outlander—which truthfully is only about 5 percent fantasy and 95 percent historical romance—no series has broken through to the masses or captured the zeitgeist like Thrones did for the better part of the 2010s. And it seems unlikely that the most recent series to join the fantasy fray, Amazon Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time, is going to be the show to do it, either.
Adapted for television by Rafe Judkins from Robert Jordan’s best-selling series of novels, The Wheel of Time is an expansive but fairly traditional entry into the fantasy genre. Set in a world where time is cyclical, magic exists, and only a powerful organization of women known as the Aes Sedai can control it, the show follows Rosamund Pike’s Moiraine, an Aes Sedai who seeks to find the Dragon Reborn, the latest incarnation of the one person destined to fight the Dark One and either save or destroy humanity in the process. The first season finds Moiraine, her protector Lan (Daniel Henney), and five young men and women—one of whom is prophesied to be the Dragon Reborn—as they travel from a small village near the Two Rivers to the safety of the White Tower, the home of the Aes Sedai. Along the way, they encounter numerous obstacles, from grotesque monsters, human agents of the Dark One, and a military-like organization known as the Children of the Light, which seeks to root out anyone with the ability to channel magic (aka the One Power).
It is a subtle twist on the familiar Chosen One narrative that pits good versus evil and puts the fate of the world in as-yet-unidentified hands. But the series is shallow, with little in the way of actual, concentrated world-building; the characters are generic archetypes and the writers do little to explain the mythology that governs this world. At times it feels like we’ve been dropped into a sequel and are expected to understand what’s going on, which is impossible unless you’ve read the dense source material (the series spans 14 novels, a few of which were written by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death). And if you have read the books, you’re bound to find something to dislike as well, since the writers have either changed or trimmed a lot from the novels in order to bring it to TV. While the show gets better as it goes, fans of fantasy hoping to find a series worthy of their time will likely be disappointed, as The Wheel of Time is a lackluster entry to the genre, a halfhearted attempt to capitalize on the recent interest in fantasy. This means, unfortunately, that it’s also par for the course.
For years fantasy shows operated on the fringes, outside of the mainstream. Even when series featuring fantasy elements did find success, they were often relegated to under-watched critical darling (The Magicians, Wynonna Earp) or Tumblr favorite (Shadowhunters, Merlin). Meanwhile, many other series’ strengths were only fully appreciated after they’d concluded (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But when HBO dared to take fantasy seriously with Thrones, suddenly it was palatable. Suddenly, an entire genre that had been overlooked for years was legitimate in the eyes of the masses. It became cool to watch a sprawling epic set in a wholly original world where dragons existed. Emmy nominations (and wins!) went from delusions of grandeur to a given. But nearly every attempt Hollywood has made to engage in fantasy TV since Game of Thrones has fallen flat, either because it was inaccessible to the casual viewer, had incomplete world-building and/or confusing mythology, or featured lackluster visual effects. (Or, in the case of American Gods, never-ending conflict behind the scenes.)
Even HBO struggled with its next fantasy series, His Dark Materials, which debuted in 2019 just six months after Thrones concluded. Though it is a worthy attempt to bring Philip Pullman’s fan-favorite novels to life on screen (at least, it’s far better than the 2007 film starring Nicole Kidman ever was), it hasn’t found much of an audience outside of those already familiar with its story. With a narrative exploring the dangers of unchecked power and dogmatic belief through a coming-of-age story involving multiple universes, daemons, angels, talking polar bears, and a mysterious particle known as dust, it’s not as accessible to outsiders as Game of Thrones was early on.
It’s easy to forget, but Thrones began modestly and succeeded initially because of interpersonal conflicts, not fantasy elements. Although it would expand in size, scope, and budget as it continued, the show only occasionally deployed the level of magic and fantasy that appear in many programs making their way to TV now. The presence of White Walkers, the Children of the Forest, dragons, and Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) resurrection all played roles in the overarching narrative of the series, but it wasn’t always that way. It naturally worked out well for HBO, which could claim to have popularized the fantasy genre while also making a fantasy series that only engaged in its core elements for a fraction of its eight-season run. But it’s also made things harder for every show that follows. His Dark Materials, The Witcher, The Wheel of Time and other series that fully immerse viewers in different worlds and feature deeply complex mythologies that rely from the jump on magic, monsters, gods, and various other creatures to tell their stories will never be as universally accessible as a show that only came to lightly engage with its fantasy elements after hooking viewers with promises of battling houses and political intrigue.
Most of these fantasy shows are adaptations of expansive, wide-ranging novels (or series of novels) that deal with similar themes like the balance of light and dark, the battle between good and evil, or the dangers of unchecked power. But their narratives are wrapped up in complex lore that is not always easily translated from page to screen. This is why so many adaptations feel like they’ve been watered down or are only skimming the surface of what’s possible. This was the case for Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, which follows Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), an orphan who discovers she’s Grisha: someone who can use the show’s version of magic known as “small science.” Alina finds that she possesses an ability to control sunlight that will allow her to save her country from the Shadow Fold, an area of oppressive darkness that has divided the country and is home to hideous creatures that feast on human flesh. The series was embraced by viewers unfamiliar with the novels upon which the series is based for creating a compelling new universe. But those who’d experienced Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse trilogy on the page felt cheated by the way the show rushed through the story and failed to develop the Grisha as a people. Alina’s deeply complex relationship with the Darkling (Ben Barnes), a man who can control shadow, also felt flattened and underdeveloped. The fact the writers inserted multiple characters from a companion series didn’t help either, as this ate up screen time that could have been better spent developing these areas of concern.
But even when shows take their time and are able to capture the depth and essence of their source material, as is the case with Netflix’s adaptation of the high fantasy series The Witcher (which is also a popular video game and thus comes with a huge built-in audience but exceptionally high expectations), new viewers often complain they’re too confusing to follow. Granted, the first season of The Witcher purposefully hid that it was telling stories out of time, but it was always fun to watch. And for those who stuck around, the payoff was worth it. The writers successfully built out the world of the show while developing layered backstories for its leads: a monster hunter for hire (Henry Cavill), a powerful mage with elvish blood (Anya Chalotra), and a deposed princess with mysterious powers of her own (Freya Allan). The result was a fully realized world full of rich history and characters who were all distinct in personality, drive, and desire.
Of course, blindly trusting that multiple episodes of table-setting will pay off in the end is a lot to ask. It also requires a lot of confidence on the back end, since there are plenty of shows begging for attention that are more easily understood. But it’s necessary to take the time to shape new worlds as viewers get up to speed. Much like The Witcher, the first season of The Wheel of Time ultimately sets the stage for something much larger, but it does so in such a way that through the six episodes screened for critics, it remains underdeveloped and inaccessible without lots of Googling on a second screen. While dumping lore and mythology through exposition is not ideal, neither is barely bothering to explain anything at all.
Adding insult to injury, the visual effects of The Wheel of Time sometimes leave a bit to be desired (if you’re going to have magic in your show, it better look damn cool). There are also vague objectives—find the Dragon Reborn, get to the White Tower, stop the Dark One—but there’s no sense of urgency to them. And outside of Moiraine, the characters are all still sketches of human beings. We know little about them and care about them even less, while a secondary character introduced as a gleeman reveals himself to be a fascinating addition but disappears all too quickly from the narrative.
Those who’ve read Jordan’s books are better off than those who have not, which is only natural, but it’s frustrating to see yet another high-profile fantasy show be brought down by increasingly familiar mistakes. Because, in theory, The Wheel of Time is an interesting addition to the genre. The fact we don’t yet know who the Dragon Reborn is—that we haven’t a clue who the hero of this story might be—adds a fun wrinkle to an otherwise familiar set-up. The Aes Sedai and the various factions within the organization, discernible by the color of their clothes and their different skills and jobs, are one of the more interesting creations to come out of the fantasy genre. There is a lot to like here, it’s just been poorly executed, both in terms of the writing and sometimes in terms of the production value. And every time this happens, it makes it a little harder for the next fantasy show to succeed.
Not only does The Wheel of Time’s failure to live up to expectations create questions about whether shows like Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series will similarly suffer, but it potentially makes it that much harder for other popular and worthwhile fantasy novels—of which there are many!—to find a second life on screen. In light of this, some might prefer Hollywood give up and stop trying to find “the next Game of Thrones.” Some might even be grateful that the adaptation of Patrick Rothfuss’ fan-favorite Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy seems to have died in development, because it’s almost defyingly dense and thus nearly impossible to adapt (it’s also unfinished, though that’s another problem entirely). But that’s not going to help the genre succeed on the small screen.
The state of fantasy television in 2021 is somehow both full of promise and fairly bleak. Despite the fact Hollywood remains committed to the genre, few shows are living up to expectations. In that sense, The Wheel of Time fits perfectly within TV’s big fantasy experiment. But we should continue to hope for—and demand—more.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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