Rings of Power: On Five-Year Plans, False Starts, and TV’s Second Chances
Rings of Power’s first season is a muddled eight hours of television. The Internet is rife with accounts of its play-by-play sins. The charges are, in no special order: bad Tolkien; bad characters; bad dialogue; bad pacing. Depending on the critic, the solid work of its acting troupe, VFX, and set design buy it some charity, but the objections are surprisingly uniform.
But the words “first” and “season” contain one of the strangest truths about modern TV’s architecture. Rings is in its infancy, and not even the creators know its shape. What comes after may redeem it entirely. Now, the bigger problem is whether or not anyone will notice.
If a movie burns through its first twenty minutes without interest, it’s unlikely to improve. Film critic Roger Ebert coined “Brotman’s Law” to describe this: “If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.” That’s not the case with TV, which works in cycles punctuated by forced intermissions. It responds to its audience in real-time as we consume it.
After all, there are probably more bad first seasons than good ones in the history of television, even if you exclude those of stillborn shows like Manimal. People skip over Seinfeld’s and Parks and Rec. The first dozen episodes of Deep Space Nine and Next Generation are slogs. Despite claims to perfection, Breaking Bad had its hiccups and dead-ends. Anyone remember Jesse Pinkman’s brother? Anyone?
Certainly, Rings makes the sort of mistakes which are hard to overlook. The details are numerous (watch the play-by-plays), but the main culprit is its adoration for J.J. Abrams’ fabled “mystery box.” In a mystery box format, scenes are verses of a riddle, vehicles for raw data. Who’s comet man? What do those Cirth runes mean? Which one is Sauron in disguise? This approach to storytelling gains its strength from the potential of open questions and the promise of a grand unveiling.
But TV shows aren’t riddles. It’s the scene-to-scene electricity of character and immediate drama which propels an audience through stories, not puzzles. With its attention fixed on the finale, Rings skimps on both. The result is a season which lards its first half with misdirection and filler and hides the goodies in the back. The promise of better, it believes, will be enough. It isn’t. Throwaway scenes don’t somehow unlock the energy of later, more interesting ones. They’re thrown away.
Take Rings’ first two minutes, where it should be working hardest to grab our attention. Elf bullies smash wee Galadriel’s toy boat, she runs to her brother, and he imparts Very Important Words for her to remember in the episode’s third act. Everyone in this scene is an ageless being endowed with inhuman grace, but swap a few details (a tricycle for the origami boat, say) and it would fit in a biopic about coming of age in the Bronx.
Charitably, her brother’s advice itself is trivial. Uncharitably, it’s deepity. The vintage Middle-earth case of this watch may be worth a billion dollars, but the gears are cheap.
Amazon proudly announced that they have a five-year plan, but anything with this much fat on its bones may not survive. This is Peak TV, where the oxygen is thinner and the competition fiercer. Week after week, shows are hitting inboxes and queues—shows that lack Rings’ ambition, but have better notions of what they want to be. The rest of fantasy TV is a bit too obsessed with becoming political thrillers à la Game of Thrones, but it’s following a clear trail and market demographic. Sandman nails the dream-logic of Gaiman perfectly on the first try. Niche fare like Critical Role is hitting its mark and nailing what its audience wants.
Studios are being aggressive about pruning their content, too. Seinfeld or Next Generation probably wouldn’t get second seasons in this climate. It makes sense. In periods of scarcity, you ration supplies. In periods of abundance, you ration your time.
Still, maybe we shouldn’t succumb to that instinct entirely.
Rings of Power doesn’t remotely resemble the Tolkien I read while growing up. If it resembles anything at all, it’s the 1994 science fiction epic Babylon 5. They share a sentimental side, a love of bombast, and a grand scope. They also suffer from an excess of those same qualities. At worst, they teeter on the edge between opera and self-indulgent melodrama.
There’s some cosmic irony in that. Rings of Power is the most expensive fantasy show of all time. Babylon 5 is in the running for the cheapest (or at least cheapest-looking) science fiction show of all time. Released in 1994 first under the Prime Time Entertainment Network and later under TNT, Babylon 5 was one of the first shows to craft continuous, multi-season stories. Creator Michael J. Straczynski billed it as a “television novel” and had already written almost all of its 110 episodes.
Studio executives balked. In a world without streaming, TiVo, or DVR, you either caught a show and its reruns or missed it entirely. Given that, who would have the dedication to piece together a science fiction novel? To start, Babylon 5’s dodgy acting, dialogue, props, and sets reflect their lack of faith.
If television shows aren’t riddles, they aren’t exactly novels either. Babylon 5’s introduction is like a prologue or preface—the sort of indulgence editors usually cut. Lots of hooded figures whisper, “The Shadow is coming” in the background as tedious stuff transpires in the foreground. Straczynski is so committed to the five-year plan that he keeps the audience in the dark and feeds it crumbs. Sounds familiar.
But then it rounds a corner. Straczynski completely replaces his protagonist. His characters and their arcs become more interwoven and less orderly. He cuts the filler and most of the foreshadowing. He writes in “trap doors” for his characters in case their actors leave. Broadly, he keeps the five-year plan, but tightens up his short game. The hokey sets and dialogue remain, but he embraces their theatricality and camp instead of shying away from it.
Babylon 5 is greater than the sum of its parts and a triumph of revision. To this day, there’s never been anything quite like it. If a hundred first seasons had aired alongside it, I doubt anyone would have given it a second thought. Once again: In periods of scarcity, you ration supplies. In periods of abundance, you ration time.
Maybe there’s no room for another Babylon 5. There was barely enough for one. Among other things, it requires thoughtful showrunners who can diagnose and harness their flawed creations. Given the Quibi-like levels of hubris and myopia at some of these streaming outfits, that may be too tall an order. Rather than cultivate success, big companies are eager to acquire it wholesale. It’s difficult to commend patience and faith to viewers when the industry outright abuses those virtues.
Difficult, but not impossible. I would say that the world is more interesting when greatness arises from unexpected places. I’m sure Gandalf would agree.
Sean Weeks is a student of classics and mythology who’s wandered slightly off course. If you want to join him in his odyssey, you can visit him at www.weeksauthor.com.
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