The Rings of Power–The biggest fantasy series yet ushers in a new way of telling stories on TV

Review by C.J. Bunce

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is at the forefront of 21st century television in more ways than one.  The fact that it is the most expensive series ever made–$1 billion to be spent for five seasons–means that the nature of storytelling doesn’t need to follow the same conventions as past TV.  The most stand-out element of the first eight hours over eight episodes is how little that happens, and how slowly paced what does happen develops.  A traditional series would need to fight for that second season renewal.  This series investment commitment means it doesn’t need to secure that viewership in the same way.

What does happen is a very attractive fantasy presentation.  Even if the production style can’t match a three-movie theatrical production budget and delivery, the presentation of story–the writing–is actually better than any of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies, which premiered only nine years ago.  So for a fantasy viewing experience the first season of The Rings of Power falls somewhere in between the two movie trilogies.  That’s an impressive feat.

Would it have helped to set fan expectations knowing that The Rings of Power was going to be a George Lucas-style prequel about the main characters of the later chapters of this sprawling, epic tale?  Skip all the talk of “Tolkien historians” and “accuracy”?  Eight episodes re-create the coming together of key The Hobbit and LOTR characters: Galadriel, Elrond, Sauron, and Gandalf.  I have to think setting better expectations would have alleviated some confusion.  And if you look at the series’s first season that way, the result is something much better than Lucas’s prequel series–a big deal for fantasy television.

“Always follow your nose.”  With a simple line in the season finale the identity of the Stranger (played by Daniel Weyman)–the Istar, the wizard–of season one is revealed to be a young Gandalf, later to be played by Ian McKellen in the six Peter Jackson films.  He sure seemed like he was going to be Radagast, didn’t he?  The other big reveal was which of the many characters hinted at via several red herrings would end up as the actual Sauron.  Although none were all that interesting, especially compared to the Stranger’s story, the big reveal was well done.

Impossible not to compare and contrast with Peter Jackson’s six films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and its characters?  True.  But the series also made Galadriel far more interesting than she was able to be in the movies.  The high points?  The Harfoots, who reflected the heart of the stories, and delivered the Samwise Gamgee of this new incarnation of Tolkien in with Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (played by Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Gloaming’s brilliant Markella Kavanaugh).  The biggest action came in the form of a Mt. Vesuvius-inspired volcano, providing an origin story for Mordor itself.

Viewers are left with something real to look forward to now: Nori and Gandalf’s adventure together.  Other than the vile servants of Sauron, we didn’t see a lot of actual magic in this season–it didn’t feel as fantastical as Jackson’s films.  Hopefully more fantasy tropes, like Ents and eagles that save stranded wizards–and less talking head, political machinations–lie ahead in season two.  Of course, no sex, nudity, and boring royalty battles was a welcome feature worth mentioning.

Morfydd Clark (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, His Dark Materials) made something more out of Galadriel once the series got past its opening episodes.  Another key relationship worth mentioning was the valuable and touching bond between Robert Aramyo (The King’s Man) as young half-Elf Elrond, and his old Dwarf pal, Owain Arthur’s Prince Durin.  The new characters–and actors behind them–more than carried their weight, but ultimately took a backseat to the familiar leads of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  Ismael Cruz Cordova (The Mandalorian, Sesame Street) was as compelling as any of the movie Elves as Arondir, and his love interest Bronwyn, played by Nazinin Boniadi, proved to be a survivor But Benjamin Walker (Jessica Jones) as Gil-galad was surprisingly less developed.

The Roman Britain centurion overlord vibe of Arondir was also a nice touch, and the ships and sailors provided something new that we didn’t see in the movies.

Creators Patrick McKay and John D. Payne may not have created the best TV fantasy series yet (that’s still in the hands of The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance), but it’s a close second.  And that’s only in one season.

It’s a good year for fantasy television, which included the marvelous quasi-fantasy hit Vikings: Valhalla.  Don’t miss all eight episodes of the first season of The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power, now streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming platform.

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