Most of what I’ve seen online about The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime’s fantasy series based on the novels by Robert Jordan, is shallow criticism and excessive comparisons to Game of Thrones, and so it pains me that that is also what I’m about to do. But firstly, I enjoy the show. I’ve watched the first three episodes and, as someone unfamiliar with the books, I’m engaged by the story and the world. I’ve been looking for a high fantasy series to become my new obsession and this certainly has more potential than The Witcher does, which I still don’t understand the fervour for. The problem is that there’s this one thing, this niggle that crawls to the front of my mind as I watch the show, distracting me, that I haven’t yet been able to silence. There’s something off with the presentation of the series, a real lack of visual verisimilitude. But how much realism should be expected in a fantasy world?
Very few of the show’s characters actually look like they believably live in the world of The Wheel of Time. Inauthenticity runs deep. The four protagonists live in a charming simple village in the muddy countryside of Two Rivers, some working as farmers or blacksmiths, yet they all, except maybe for scruffy Mat, look like perfectly clean models. Rand for instance is an attractive man and the show will do nothing to disguise the fact. He journeys through woods and across rivers, running from nasty Trollocs, but looks pristine. Not a stray hair in sight. In fact, he’s always clean shaven despite lacking the ability to shave while on the run. A lot of the actors seem like they’re more suited for a CW show, or have just come off a guest starring role in Riverdale and started filming for The Wheel of Time without going through hair and make-up. I don’t believe that these characters live in this world other than in the scenes we see them. Even when characters’ faces do get a little dirty, their clothes remain flawless.
The scenes where this visual disconnect works are those involving the Whitecloaks. Their immaculate, perfectly clean robes make for a great and off-putting contrast with their surroundings and the dirty woman they put to death. Yet the effectiveness of the Whitecloaks is decreased because most other characters are detrimentally presented in a similar way. The amount of dirt on someone’s face or mud on their clothes is something I never once thought of while watching Game of Thrones and am only now retroactively thinking what a great job that show did after seeing The Wheel of Time. It’s only apparent when it’s done poorly. Even The Lord of the Rings, which is closer in style and content, didn’t have this issue. The Wheel of Time isn’t aiming to be gritty, at least I don’t think so, but it’s still too clean. This could be a deliberate choice, this is a fantasy world after all, but there still needs to be some basic realism, something tangible, or it just feels like a TV show.
I’m a big proponent of 4K UHD content, whether streaming or on physical media, but The Wheel of Time makes me question if shows and films are too clean and detailed these days. Watching on a sizable television I can see pores of the skin and threads in the clothing and that could be adding to the fake feeling of the show’s visuals. The CGI is mostly good but the show is very clear and almost flat looking. It’s like when The Hobbit films were shown in a high frame-rate and it just made the big fake noses of the Dwarves look even faker. Too much detail can be distracting, and The Wheel of Time could really use some colour grading or utilise some cinematography trick to make it seem like they haven’t just gone out into the woods with a camera and filmed some people in cosplay. Hell, some grain wouldn’t go amiss. The Mandalorian had this same problem in an episode where the location looked more like a park just off of a highway than an alien world. You could almost see Kirk fighting the Gorn in the background.
Even The Wheel of Time’s rock-inflected score doesn’t seem to fit and leads to a feeling of discombobulation. Now, one of the very few things I do know about Robert Jordan’s magnum opus is that it isn’t simply a fantasy adventure set in a medieval-inspired world but rather is magically historical, modern, and futuristic all at the same time. As the name suggests, time is of a cyclical nature and civilisation continually rises and then falls. There’s even a very cool shot of some ruined skyscrapers in the first episode. This could go some way to explaining the visual palette, clothing, and music, but I’d argue the balance doesn’t feel right. The show largely feels like a classic Tolkien-esque high fantasy except for a few small elements. I genuinely look forward to readers of the books telling me why I’m wrong.
So far, my criticisms of The Wheel of Time, like the sense of inauthenticity and some questionable casting, are surface-level but admittedly quite distracting. I hope they melt away as I become used to them, or the show itself recognises and fixes them, because I’m enjoying the story and world being presented. I’m glad there will be at least one more season produced and I can’t help being excited at the prospect of it further expanding into a long-running television epic. In danger of sounding like a portentous snob, it’s not yet a genuinely great TV drama, and I don’t know if it’ll ever be, but it is a fun fantasy show and that’s all I want from it right now. Well, that and some more mud and facial hair.
What are your thoughts on The Wheel of Time? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.