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The Witcher Fails to Capture That Game of Thrones Magic

The new Netflix fantasy series plays more like a pompous Xena: Warrior Princess.
  • Henry Cavill stars as Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher (Netflix)
    Henry Cavill stars as Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher (Netflix)

    However one might feel about the final season of Game of Thrones, few would deny the impact the show had on popular culture for most of its eight-year run. As always, success breeds imitation, as rivals rush to make the next big thing exactly the same as the last big thing. Disgruntled fans hoping that Netflix's new fantasy series The Witcher might be the Game of Thrones replacement to salve their disappointment over the way the earlier show ended will, unfortunately, have to keep looking. This knockoff is nowhere near the same class.

    For all that showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has tried to downplay comparisons to Game of Thrones, her efforts are almost laughably in vain. Although her show is technically based on a book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski that predates George R.R. Martin's writings, the TV adaptation would certainly not exist if not for the success of HBO's Emmy-winning juggernaut. The story takes place in a very similar medieval fantasy setting populated by knights and witches and monsters. Most of the costumes and sets look like Game of Thrones hand-me-downs. In fact, a lot of the time, the show feels like it's meant to be a parody of Thrones and other famous works of the high fantasy genre. The lead character is styled exactly like Legolas in Lord of the Rings (the long white hair was a dicey enough look for a 24-year-old Orlando Bloom, and it's downright ridiculous on a 36-year-old Henry Cavill), while wearing a necklace with what appears to be a House Stark sigil.

    Cavill stars as Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter who travels from kingdom to kingdom slaying magical beasts and mutants in exchange for whatever coin the local peasants and villagers can scrounge up to pay him. Geralt is part mutant himself, from an order called "Witchers" (hence the title) that are bred to have no emotions. In practical terms, this allows the actor to sleepwalk through the role without exerting much effort on a performance. His only notable character trait is growling all his dialogue in a manner that must have been hell on Cavill's voice box.

    I would attempt to recap some of the plot of the show, but to be honest, it's borderline incomprehensible. The story is fragmented between so many settings and time periods that it's nearly impossible to tell when anything is happening or how characters relate to one another, if at all. Scenes feel like they're strung together in random order with no flow or continuity. Attempts at character development are undercut by a highly compressed narrative that jumps from major plot-point to plot-point, ignoring anything that might happen in between. Two characters will meet in one scene, be engaged in a torrid relationship the next time we see them, and break up before the end of the episode. Decades of story time pass with no attempt to age the actors.

    To further confuse matters, most of the characters have silly names like Jaskier, Fringilla, or Filavandrel, and the names of the various kingdoms and the monsters are a bunch of equally gibberish words that require a glossary to keep straight. Presumably some of this will make more sense to those  who've read the books. The show seems to be made exclusively for that audience, with countless scenes that drop references to people or things that are played up to have momentous importance but have no meaning at all for the rest of us.

    To be fair, Game of Thrones was a little confusing in its first season as well. However, that show had extremely well-drawn characters and a compelling storyline right from the start. Sadly, the same cannot be said of The Witcher. Most of the characters are two-dimensional and frequently cartoonish, the monsters and other visual effects are often very cheesy, and the story is too jumpy and dull to care about anything in it.

    The show's tone is also all over the place, veering from deadly serious to goofily comedic. The dialogue is filled with anachronistic modern phrases and profanity. Geralt has a habit of being a sarcastic ass, and the second episode introduces a comic relief character who seems to be playing the Paul Bettany role from A Knight's Tale, even at one point breaking the fourth wall to wink at the audience and joke about how much exposition he's delivered.

    In short, The Witcher is a big, sloppy mess that can't be taken seriously yet isn't fun enough to work as parody or camp. Nevertheless, Netflix is confident enough in the show's prospects to have already renewed it for a second season. That sort of hubris would make Geralt himself roll his eyes.

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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: The Witcher, Netflix, Game of Thrones, Henry Cavill