Here's a frightening confession: I almost liked Legend of the Seeker.
In a post Peter Jackson-directed Lord of the Rings world, this ought to be impossible. Jackson's franchise was a meticulously wrought, Academy Award winning venture that raised the bar for filmed fantasy above anything most general audiences had seen before. Seeker, a television show based on the Sword of Truth novels by Terry Goodkind and produced by Sam Raimi is silly, predictable and gleefully determined to return to the leather-bikini mentality of Raimi's more infamous fantasy forays, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. The show just finished its first season on ABC and it's not overstating things to say that it singlehandedly sets the credibility Rings lent to the fantasy genre back twenty years, to a time before Peter Jackson managed to remind the viewing public that compelling dramas could also include wizards.
Of course, Jackson was working with superior material. By contrast, the Sword of Truth series (frequent forays into BDSM and bizarre rants about the evils of Socialism aside) could be the template for Generic Fantasy 101. The first book of that series, Wizard's First Rule (1997), is the story of a humble woodsman who fights an evil wizard and becomes a king after surviving a series of trials. How derivative is Goodkind's work? Here's a hint: his hero's name is Richard Cypher.
In this respect, Legend of the Seeker is an accurate representation of its source material: for 22 episodes the characters run blithely from one compass point to the other doing nothing we haven't seen a hundred times before (usually in another Raimi vehicle). Indeed, from the opening moments of Seeker's first episode ("Prophecy") the show's makers seem to be banking on our nostalgia for The Lord of the Rings films to lure us in: The camera swoops over the tops of the same mountains Jackson used (like Rings, Seeker is filmed in New Zealand) and begins to track in on a pair of riders, one in ethereal flowing white. The viewer thrills to the visual beauty of the scene and to its eerie familiarity. Hey! Is that Arwen, running away from the Ringwraiths again? Oh. No. Actually it's a woman named Kahlan Amnell (Bridget Regan), a "Mother Confessor" whose touch forces men to tell the truth (and makes them her willing slaves) and she's fleeing from a bunch of burly dudes from the evil D'Haran Empire—but, hey, close enough!
The chase continues with what appears to be a shot-by-shot reproduction of The Fellowship of the Ring's "Flight to the Ford" Sequence (hey look! The horse is jumping over a log—just like Arwen! Hey look! Kahlan's sleeves are flapping beatifically in the wind—just like Arwen! And wow—is this the exact same location or what?). When Kahlan reaches her destination she discovers Richard (Craig Horner), the young man destined to be the Seeker of Truth (a sort of populist He-Man) living in a pastoral setting highly reminiscent of The Shire. (I swear I spotted the Party Tree.) And it's not just the pilot. Every creative choice over the next 21 episodes blatantly mimics Rings's production design. The costumes—all leather jerkins and flowing robes—might have been made by Ngila Dickson as mock ups for her Academy Award winning elf-garb (although Dickson never had as much fun showing off Liv Tyler's cleavage as Seeker's costume designer Susan Holland does with Regan's). The cinematography pointedly matches Jackson's color scheme: bright green grass! Spooky blue rocks! And OMG—did that dark wizard just silhouette himself against the moon a la Saurman atop Orthanc???!!!
As the characters begin to speak, one grasps the reason for this strangely derivative approach: Seeker knows from the start that it has nothing new to say. Every line of dialogue feels like it comes from another movie. Consider this scene, in which Kahlan takes out her anger on crusty wizard Zedd (Bruce Spence), accusing him of letting Richard "catch worms" for the past twenty years when he was supposed to be training Richard to be the Seeker:
KAHLAN: And while he was getting his nails dirty, did it ever occur to you to give him the slightest inkling that he is the first true Seeker in the last thousand years? He has a destiny!
ZEDD: Who are you to decide a man's destiny?
KAHLAN: It's not me. It's the prophecy!
ZEDD: Prophecy be damned!
RICHARD (after they've argued awhile): Stop! What are you talking about? And what's a Seeker?
Oh dear. The double episode opener of "Prophecy" and "Destiny" could easily be turned into a drinking game with cues to take a shot after each tired fantasy cliché—and orders to drain the bottle when lightening hits Richard's new sword, consecrating his fate (no I'm not kidding). It's very nearly unwatchable.
But then, I believe I started by talking about how I liked the show. This is due entirely to the actors, and to the directors' decision to steer clear of nearly anything approaching seriousness (a wise choice given that Richard becomes the world's deadliest assassin in a single afternoon even though he's never chopped up anything more threatening than a log.)
Despite being saddled by what appears to be the accumulated bad dialogue of every speculative television show since the original Battlestar Galactica, newcomers Craig Horner and Bridget Regan (as Richard and Kahlan) display an appealing sincerity. Regan in particular, forced to spout mostly exposition early on, really comes into her own in the latter half of the season. "Mirror," an episode that finds her and Richard battling a pair of con artists who have magically disguised themselves as the Seeker and Confessor, gives her a chance to drop her stiff mantle of propriety and go gloriously over-the-top as her less-savory look alike. (Horner too seems to enjoy amping his usual Seeker swagger up to eleven.) And the season finale, during which Kahlan is forced to make a devil's bargain with her nemesis Darken Rahl (Craig Parker) owes its thrills and chills not to the hackneyed time-travel plot, but to Regan's haunted and restrained performance. It's too bad she doesn't have a real show to be on, but her ability to infuse lines like "You're as mad as you are cruel!" with actual dignity, (all the while looking fabulous in a series of tight bodices) probably goes a long way towards keeping fantasy starved fans coming back week after week.
There are also quite a few good supporting players in the cast. As the slightly addled Zedd (he is first introduced to us naked and talking to his pet chicken) Bruce Spence has to mumble nonsensical magical incantations (think "Abracadabra!" not "O Elbereth!"), but he plays his part with a gleam in his eye and a charming lack of embarrassment. Kiwi actor Parker also knows that this is camp and, in the great tradition of actors with accents upstaging their American co-stars, proceeds to steal every scene, playing up Rahl's Dark-Lord kinkiness until you can hear the fan-girls squeeing. In the episode "Home" he saves what is essentially a glorified clip-show as Rahl, standing in a pool of blue fire, whispers sweet nothings into the ear of the sleeping Seeker, forcing him to recount the last eleven episodes as part of a ploy to wrest magical intelligence out of him. Technically, Rahl is appearing to Richard in the form of Richard's childhood sweetheart, Anna—which means actress Jessica Chapnik (better in her second episode, "Hartland") says a good deal of the lines—but she isn't saying them all, and the episode takes on a sublimely goofy homo-eroticism that Parker embraces with gusto. The best episodes in the series tend to feature Parker. A dubious honor, perhaps, but one wishes he were in all of them. The heroes and situations in Legend of the Seeker are so mind-numbingly familiar one can only look forward to the intervention of a villain who has no qualms playing mind games with Richard's little sister, Jennsen (played by Brooke Williams as the world's most annoying virgin), killing the occasional kitten (bad Darken! Bad!) and making out with an endless coterie of dominatrix handmaidens called Mord-Sith who wear red leather and wield hilariously phallic weapons called agiel. In the show's best episode, "Conversion," Rahl induces Kahlan into the freaky Con Dar—a magical "blood rage" that transforms Kahlan into an extra from Raimi's Evil Dead—by driving foot-long needles into her torso. This same episode also marks the one and only time Richard actually confronts the man he's prophesied to kill, and the resulting sword-fight is pure entertainment. (It helps that Parker generates more sexual tension between both Regan and Horner than the two leads ever do with each other.)
It can't last, however—and here is where the show's forced resemblance to Jackson's Lord of the Rings becomes its impediment. You simply can't draw so many comparisons between your show and such great films and not expect to pay when you lack that film's substance, realism and originality. After all Jackson did to create a tangible fantasy world in Rings (an aspect, one might argue, that accounts for a good portion of the film's success) it boggles the mind that filmmakers can't take a hint about proper world-building. Seeker is only one in a long list of post-Rings fantasy films (other examples would be The Spiderwick Chronicles and Eragon) that confuse a shiny CGI surface with the actual creation of a working fantasy world. This is where derivativeness compromises the plausibility of the storytelling. Kahlan's Galadriel dress looks gorgeous but is distractingly unrealistic given how many sword-fights she gets into: one wonders why the bad guys don't simply grab her and strangle her with her ridiculously flowing sleeves. The villages the characters pass through are all the same thatch roofed clusters frequented by Xena and Gabrielle. At least Xena was riffing on Greek Mythology. Seeker can only riff on Xena. It's the bastard spawn of 300—whose slow mo fighting sequences it blatantly lifts—and Lucy Lawless's breast-plate. And while the dreadful opening episodes do at last give way to some better fare mid-season, Seeker ultimately loses its half-hearted battle against mediocrity, by failing to live up even to its own paltry standards.
One might forgive the silly dialogue, the gratuitous cleavage and a truly bizarre episode called "Brennidon" (in which Richard encounters a village populated entirely by women dressed as the Virgin Mary), but when the show can't even be bothered to deliver the "epic showdown" between Richard and Darken Rahl that's been promised for 21 episodes . . . well, silliness is one thing, laziness another. Parker and Horner have already clashed swords before, so why end the season arc with "Reckoning"—a laughably misnamed episode in which Richard, sucked into the future by a spell, does nothing but wander about with a luscious (and ludicrous) Mord Sith named Cara (Tabrett Bethell) while Kahlan figures out how to save the day on her own? After a dreary day of flirting (Cara to Richard: "I don't know about you, but I need to find some small bit of comfort in this accursed place.") and eating maggots (because apparently there's no other food for hungry heroes in the future) Richard and Cara finally stumble back to the present, just in time to defeat Darken Rahl by . . . I don't even know what. Something involving green fire and poor Parker falling to the earth in a curiously hairless husk. And it was then, dear readers, that I'm afraid even my tolerance gave out.
Legend of the Seeker has, improbably, been renewed for a second season. (If you, like me, still can't get over the cancellation of shows like Firefly, this one really stings.) With Raimi as a producer it obviously has money behind it. It probably could have had his wit and innovation (he did do Spider-man, after all) for a few bucks more. One can only wonder, in the end, at an opportunity squandered. If you have access to both budget and talent, why wouldn't you do something useful with it? Why wouldn't you, I don't know, raise the bar? Don't seek for answers here.
Hannah Strom-Martin lives and writes in California.