Watching the premiere of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” I felt relieved that Amazon had sent only the first two episodes for review. I wouldn’t have to writhe in my seat through too many CGI-infected hours of what promised to deliver everything I don’t like about big-budget fantasy stories. I love my job, but, you know, sometimes it is a job, and I sit with eyes forced open, “A Clockwork Orange”-like.
And then came episode two, and then came my relief, as the show improved from its simplistic, overly expositional, and bloated beginnings enough for me to remove those cumbersome metal eye-clamps and sit up a bit. Episodes three through eight? Your guess is as good as mine.
I suppose it’s hard for the makers of a franchise series like “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” — in this case they are creators and showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay — to introduce their massive world to viewers. They need to answer to the hard-core fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s movies as well as newcomers like me; they need to tell the backstory, to set up the stakes of the drama, and — since “The Rings of Power” is set during Middle-earth’s Second Age, thousands of years before the more familiar tales — they need to keep their eyes on the future for the sake of consistency and to drop in Easter eggs.
But the first hour of the show — the series reportedly cost a record-breaking $58 million per episode — is little more than a series of action set-pieces with fancified language and British accents to make it all seem meaningful. The themes of the story are laid out as if they’re revelatory and profound, when really they come down to something like light being better than dark, good being better than evil, and anything ever being better than — dare I even write his name, so heinous and hideous and vile is he? — Sauron. The supposedly vanquished Sauron is still lurking somewhere, which the valiant elf Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), one of the show’s heroines, feels in her heart and repeats a few times so we know she’s a driven soul. Her fellow elf warriors, however, believe he is gone for good and declare peace.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack is a bullying piece of work, demanding that you feel hope, joy, fear, terror, and relief at any given moment — all because those feelings are not sufficiently triggered by the scripts or the characters, as they ought to be. The music works in close synchronicity with the visuals, which are spectacular, of course — the budget is indeed visible on the screen — but also hollow. The camera seems to soar over castles and waterfalls, and the sky brightens with the kind of light that seems to have been imported from heaven itself, and yet it’s all generically blockbuster. You’ve seen this kind of magical land unfold in other shows and movies, and mostly movies. Call “The Rings of Power” a TV series if you like, but it has the attitude and comportment of a big-screen feature, stretched out.
The emphasis on the movie-size scale comes at the expense of what TV, with its extra time and intimacy, can do so well: character development. In the first episode of “The Rings of Power,” I cared about no one, not even the noble, immortal Galadriel, whose search for Sauron and commitment to end evil is also fueled by vengeance for her brother’s death. No matter how much glitz and glory the show may serve up, it’s pointless if the characters are made of cardboard. That’s where “Game of Thrones” and, to some extent, spinoff “House of the Dragon,” distinguish themselves from many other epics; they don’t let their broad scope overwhelm the most important element of the saga, which is character. They take us inside each of the main people, and pursue their ambiguities and twisted motives, rather than giving us figures cut from a good-bad binary.
In the second episode, the exposition dies down a bit, and glimmers of character do emerge, hinting at better episodes to come. Galadriel’s half-elf friend Elrond (Robert Aramayo), a politician aide, goes to visit an old dwarf friend, Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur), who has some nits to pick with him. Soon, though, you can feel their bond as they become close once again, with Elrond trying to draw Durin into a project. Meanwhile, Durin’s wife, Disa (Sophia Nomvete), cheers them on and brings shimmers of warmth to the story. The gathering of Harfoots (Hobbit-like creatures), too, adds warmth and depth, with the daring Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and her more cautious friend Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) facing a mysterious visitor together.
There are, of course, in keeping with the fantasy epic aesthetic, many more characters involved. The healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) stands out, as does the elf who is smitten with her, the soldier Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), who was created for the series. I can always get behind a good forbidden-love plot.
I’m hoping the series will continue to improve, and that all involved will shake off the bland blockbuster mentality in favor of something that belongs on TV. I’ve put aside my eye-clamps, but I’m keeping them nearby, cleaned and ready if and when they are needed once again.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: The Rings of Power
Starring: Morfydd Clark, Robert Aramayo, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Charles Edwards, Lloyd Owen, Sophia Nomvete, Benjamin Walker, Owain Arthur, Megan Richards, Nazanin Boniadi, Markella Kavenagh, Sara Zwangobani, Maxim Baldry, Charlie Vickers, Leon Wadham
On: Amazon. Premieres Thursday with two episodes