Are you ready to dive into a whole new fantasy world full of knights, magic, and characters named Mousesack, Vilgefortz, and Bargafar of Qzzywczyx? OK, I made that last one up, but that's the kikkimore-sized obstacle Netflix hopes viewers will happily overcome with its new fantasy series The Witcher. Though based on a popular series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, which also inspired a kick-ass series of video games, the story of The Witcher will be unknown to most who come across it, and viewers will have to ask themselves if they're up for the level of learning it will take to get the most out of the show.
With no better comparisons on hand, most are asking if The Witcher is the next Game of Thrones. They both have burly dudes with swords, a complex political backstory between factions you've never heard of (let alone can barely pronounce), and boobs and swearing. But where Game of Thrones was a sprawling story with 10 billion main characters and inspired by events from real-world history, The Witcher is almost intimate in comparison, following just three main characters (and the many characters surrounding their journeys), but is truly out there in the realms of high fantasy.
Game of Thrones certainly felt more accessible to the novice than The Witcher, which uses a whole lot more magical and fantastical elements and is built upon the nebulous and fantasy-friendly theme of destiny. There may be more here for Game of Thrones fans who were into Bran's story, is what I'm trying to say, than those who enjoyed the Lannister ladder-climbing. (Personally, I didn't care for Bran's story -- sorry Tyrion -- but I very much enjoy what The Witcher is offering. Bran never should have been made king based on having the "most interesting" story, c'mon, and -- I'm just gonna stop there.)
However, those who commit to the leap of learning a whole new set of rules, terms, and names -- and those who are willing to risk that commitment again after what Game of Thrones pulled in its final seasons; we're all still dealing with PTSD -- will be rewarded with a carefully crafted story of destiny, love, and a white-haired stud slicing monsters to pieces. With its elaborate fantasy setting, richly detailed universe, and compartmentalized storytelling, The Witcher is better compared to the excellent science-fiction series The Expanse. It's great for those who love the genre, but might be a little too hardcore for those who don't have the will to keep up.
The Witcher follows Geralt of Rivia (pronounced like Gerald, but with a hard 'G,' and played to fan boy perfection by Henry Cavill), a rather grumpy monster-hunter for hire, whose destiny is intertwined with young Princess Ciri (Freya Allan) and the powerful sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra). Geralt is a happy loner, taking coins from locals in exchange for slaying magical monstrosities. We're told that Ciri, who is in the dawn of her teens, if that, is of great importance for reasons that we'll eventually find out and therefore the desire of bad guys all over the place. And Yennefer, who has the strongest origin story in the early Season 1 episodes, embarks on a rags-to-riches quest for power as a budding mage building her influence.
Each of the characters charts their own adventures early in the season before they meet, but about three episodes in, viewers will realize that the three are not just separated locationally. The Witcher's most unique feature, which also happens to be its biggest gamble, is in its choice of storytelling style. There's bound to be heaps of confusion that will lead to rewatches and many "Here's What's Going on in The Witcher" posts, but viewers without patience may be repelled if they're not fully committed. At first glance, this choice of storytelling -- which Netflix asked us not to reveal *eye roll* -- is convoluted and unnecessary, but later becomes essential to establishing each of the main character's importance. Let's just say that if things went normally, we wouldn't meet Ciri until Season 3 or so, and because the characters are so intricately linked, it isn't until actually going through the whole season that viewers will realize what a daring and effective decision it was.
Another unusual feature of The Witcher comes in Geralt's stories, which are taken from Sapkowski's early short stories and span a variety of genres that feel disconnected from Ciri's and Yennefer's more traditional paths. Geralt's portions in early episodes have the feel of standalone procedurals -- for example, Geralt is hired to take out a monster and winds up learning there's more to the task than a simple slaying -- rather than part of a larger arc, sort of like televised adaptations of side quests from the video games. (Fortunately for the series, the games were successful largely because of the richness and detail of these side quests.) I could watch hours and hours of this! Geralt's appearances in the early episodes are almost like mini-episodes of Supernatural or The X-Files, with beginnings, middles, and ends, and many twists in between. Many of the characters and deeds involved in Geralt's quests are never heard from again, but some are mentioned in passing at other points, giving them more importance than a regular standalone story. But overall, they help to flesh out the world and, more importantly, give insight into Geralt's character, which is more morally complex than you'd initially think.
Geralt's stories also provide a variance of tone. The Witcher is at times a straight adventure, other times it's a fantasy-horror, and sometimes it's a buddy comedy. And if you're a fan of romance, gird your engorged loins for some hot-and-heavy action between Geralt and Yennefer, two star-crossed lovers entangled through fate who can't keep their hands off each other, whether it's heavy petting or angry slapping. These different tones all work together to build a world that feels real and lived in by these characters, showing all facets of life on both grand and personal scales. And because the focus is mostly on just three characters, the show has plenty of time to build these tones.
You want fights? The Witcher has fights. Though nothing is on par with the massive battles in Game of Thrones, the swordplay is more stylized than hack-and-slash, with Cavill proving that his pre-season training with the blade was worth it. They're not perfect, but they're certainly more than a lumbering man struggling to hoist a massive sword and bringing it down on a foe. It's not as gory as Game of Thrones, though limbs do frequently separate from body. The addition of magic also adds a wrinkle to the fights, and The Witcher uses magic sparingly but with great-looking, minimal effects. On the flip side of that, the fights Geralt has with non-humanoid, wholly CG-generated creatures, including one that kicks off the series, don't look that great at all. Think something along the lines of a modern-era Syfy series, which is pretty disappointing considering how far Game of Thrones went to bring its dragons to life. Netflix has the money but apparently not the time.
It all adds up to a show that should make fans of The Witcher books and games pretty happy -- the eight-episode Season 1 feels like a prologue to bigger things that will happen in future seasons -- but will have a harder time convincing newbies to the canon to continue watching. The barrier for entry with The Witcher is pretty high; between the weird-ass fantasy names, odd story structure, and complicated backstory, it's a lot to take on without a little help. I went in knowing very little, but at some point decided "f--- it, I'm in," and left wanting to know a lot more. If you can add a new project like The Witcher to your life, you should.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Season 1 of The Witcher is now on Netflix.