Amazon’s ‘The Wheel of Time’ Spins a Visually Alluring Fantasy Epic That Drags
A specter haunts all of TV, the desire to be the next “Game of Thrones.” Many major streamers have tried to produce the most expensive fantasy epic they can muster. No novel featuring dragons and magic is safe. All are pillaged for their fan base potential. Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time” is based on a popular book series by Robert Jordan, yet it almost doesn’t matter because its real influence is every other fantasy epic that has been released over the last few years. Talented artists, in front and behind the camera, are called in to use the same color schemes, editing choices, music queues and sluggish plot lines of everything that came before.
It’s as if we’re living in a retread to the 1980s, when “Conan the Barbarian” and “Excalibur” kicked off a whole continent of bad muscled sword adventures. The trend is now shows shot with drained filters and big valleys. Rosamund Pike is both star and executive producer, putting on a cape to play Moiraine Damodred, a member of Aes Sedai, an all-female organization of, well, powerful people with powerful powers. She’s followed around by an assistant, the sword-wielding Lan Mondragon (Daniel Henney). Damodred drops into the village of Two Rivers, which looks like every fantasy medieval village where the denizens drink, sing and smack each other around. Her senses seem to hint that this is where she will find “the Dragon,” a messianic being who will do the usual, like destroy the world or make it better. Moiraine focuses on a particular group composed of (it’s quite a long roster) Rand (Josha Stradowski), his kind-of girlfriend Egwene (Madeleine Madden), Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and Mat (Barney Harris). Skeptical, they embark on a journey with Moiraine to White Tower, where they will meet the others in Aes Sedai. But a threatening force chases after them, the Darkness.
“The Wheel of Time” joins other recent fantasy shows, like Netflix’s “Cursed,” which might only appeal to the diehard fantasy fan who will like anything with snarling orcs. However, it’s not as entertaining as “The Witcher” or Apple TV’s bizarre “See.” This one drags on and on. It’s almost a fantasy version of some game show where we’re meant to keep watching to figure out who will be revealed as the Dragon. For the first few episodes the story consists of Moiraine on the road with the group who have lots of infighting going on between each other and with her. The Darkness sends out minions in the form of monsters called Trollocs, who devour entire villages and get blasted away by Moiraine’s powers or Mondragon’s sword. Such moments are at least executed with pristine visual effects. There’s also plenty of gore. Villains in militarized outfits munch on human flesh while killing a Trollocs can leave quite the mess.
“The Wheel of Time” inevitably raises some urgent questions about where fantasy is going in the streaming age. Who is it made for? This is not an easy show to binge. It features a lot of talking when the story should get moving. Some of it gets very mundane, from romantic squabbles within the group to Moiraine giving hot-aired speeches. We’re grateful these moments are pleasant to look at because they take place inside steamy caves and lush forests. The sound design conjures the sound of wind blowing through dense woods. Then a sudden death or Trolloc attack adds suspense and a little more drama. In combat someone might accidentally slam a battle axe into the wrong person. But be sure to take notes on such matters as how the wheel of time works, particularly in the matter of bringing spirits back. Other members of the group might wander off, and each one eventually deals with their own tests, like Perrin getting chased by wolves.
It has become cliché by now to mention “Game of Thrones” whenever one of these new fantasy servings gets released. Yet it’s obvious what the studios are chasing after. What they miss is that HBO’s great contribution to fantasy, despite that infamous last season, carried on as if it was a serious drama about politics, history and grand suspense. A show like “The Wheel of Time” never creates a rich backstory for itself and thinks recycling the same old wizardry and ghouls will deliver a massive audience. The visuals have some magic here, but the overall journey fails to cast any sort of spell.
“The Wheel of Time” season one begins streaming Nov. 19 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.