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Shadow and Bone Has Ambition and Spectacle, But Fails to Break from the Pack

Peak TV's latest fantasy adaptation has a been-there, done-that feel.
  • Jessie Mei Li stars as Alina Starkov in Shadow and Bone. (Photo: Netflix)
    Jessie Mei Li stars as Alina Starkov in Shadow and Bone. (Photo: Netflix)

    Based on a popular book series, Netflix's Shadow and Bone hopes to dazzle viewers with impressive visual effects, expensive production values, and expansive fantasy world-building. Had it debuted twelve years ago, the show might have left quite a mark. In 2021, however, pretty much every cable network and streaming outlet has launched a series like this, including several from Netflix itself.

    Adapted from the Grishaverse novels by author Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone takes place in a steampunk magical fantasy world where armies still ride horses and fire single-shot rifles, yet have battalions of witches and ships that can sail across sand. The kingdom of Ravka is split in two by a vast magical disturbance called the Fold, a stretch of nearly impenetrable darkness filled with flying undead monsters called Volcra. Travelling through the Fold is possible — and lucrative for those who manage it — but very dangerous.

    Ravka is at war with neighboring kingdom Fjerda, while sentiments of civil war also brew between the east and west halves of its own borders. To fight these battles, the Ravkan military has two branches: the First Army comprised of regular rank-and-file soldiers, and the Second Army comprised of special individuals called Grisha who can wield magic via intricate contortions of their hands.

    Ben Barnes as The Darkling / General Kirigan and Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in Shadow and Bone (Photo: Netflix)

    The heroine of this story is Alina Starkov (newcomer Jessie Mei Li), a young cartographer of seemingly little significance in the Ravkan First Army. While assigned to a ship navigating the Fold, Alina discovers that not only is she Grisha, but may possibly even be the fabled Sun Summoner, a prophesied savior with the power to destroy the Fold forever. That comes as quite a surprise to her, and brings her into the orbit of the swoon-worthy General Kirigan (Ben Barnes from The Chronicles of Narnia and Westworld), leader of the entire Ravkan army and a powerful Grisha himself. But her power and her value also call her to the attention of the kindgom's criminal element. Hoping to collect a bounty on her head, shady nightclub owner Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter from Pennyworth) leads a small and eccentric band of outlaws on Alina's trail.

    That's a lot of exposition, and an awful lot of terminology to fully absorb. The Grisha are further broken down into various categories based on their powers – such as heartrenders, tidemakers, squallers, and inferni. Thankfully, the show doles all this out in a sufficiently clear and comprehensible manner, which puts it leagues ahead of Netflix's incoherent (yet apparently wildly successful) The Witcher. The narrative is cleanly plotted and the show's sets, costumes, and visual effects are all suitably lavish. The actors are reasonably charismatic and deliver their roles well enough, even if the casting often feels like it's been run through a CW filter. Most of the main players are young and attractive, but lack the gravitas to sell the stakes of the story. It's hard to take Kaz seriously as an intimidating crime boss when he barely looks old enough to drink the liquor served at his own establishment.

    Kit Young as Jesper Fahey, Amita Suman as Inej Ghafa and Freddy Carter as Kaz Brekker in Shadow And Bone  (Photo: David Appleby/Netflix)

    Despite that, Shadow and Bone does a lot well and checks off quite a few important boxes on the list of things that should make a TV show successful these days. It has fantasy; it has romance; it has superpowers; its cast is diverse and it has storylines that promote inclusivity without beating you over the head about it (well, maybe a little bit). Yet in doing so, the show feels very familiar. You don't need to have read any of the books to know exactly where this story is going. The narrative leans heavily into overplayed Chosen One and Hero's Journey tropes. And while the fantasy aspects have impressive scope, ambition, and imagination, plenty of other shows have already pulled that off in recent years.

    Comparisons to Game of Thrones are unavoidable. The current glut of big-budget prestige fantasy epics is a direct result of every studio in Hollywood wanting to fill the void left by the HBO juggernaut. Netflix has already hunted that dragon with shows like The Witcher, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and last year's underwhelming The Letter for the King. The setting in this one is less medieval and more late-19th/early-20th Century, which puts it closer in line with Amazon's Carnival Row or HBO's His Dark Materials and The Nevers. Most of these shows work from the same basic template, and the fact that they're all appearing in close proximity isn't good for any of them.

    Of those competitors, The Nevers stands out (at least so far) for being executed with some degree of wit and verve missing from the others. Shadow and Bone doesn't attempt anything like that. The show sticks closely to formula, to its detriment. Although competently executed, the series probably won't be the next Game of Thrones cultural phenomenon that Netflix undoubtedly wanted.

    The complete first season of Shadow and Bone drops on Netflix Friday April 23rd.

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    Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.

    TOPICS: Shadow and Bone, Netflix, Ben Barnes, Freddy Carter, Jessie Mei Li