Sunday 11 September 2022

"An inflexion-point in the collapse of The West" - My review of Amazon's "Rings of Power"

Galadriel - a face you would never tire of slapping...

I have watched the first three episodes of Amazon's Rings of Power pseudo-Tolkien series; and - although it is indeed very bad, as everyone with a capacity for valid judgment realizes - I think the fundamental quality of its badness has been somewhat misrepresented by the reviews I have seen. 

My personal context is that the show is so completely un-Tolkienian (in all but a few names) that it is actually much less painful to watch than I have feared it would be... at least much less painful in that way. 

I feared some kind of cunning and parodic subversion, which would tend to exploit and twist Tolkien, intending subtly to reshape and poison ones memories and concepts - and to program the expectations of new Tolkien readers with a false and evil frame. 

But Rings of Power comes across as something else altogether - something rather more like the TV series of Sword of Shannara (but, in effect, much worse). Sure - RoP grossly misrepresents Tolkien - but so grossly that it ceases to be Tolkien altogether. 

Therefore, I could not help but watch RoP in its own terms; forgetting my lifelong love of Tolkien's work and judging the show purely as if it was an original fantasy series. 

And it is that that level where lies The Problem - or rather the lethal combination of problems. 

Rings of Power is very badly done in its conception, plotting, script and editing. 

It also strikes me as badly cast, acted and directed (in particular there is an absence of 'star quality' - the mysterious and unfakeable capacity of some actors to hold attention and impress). 

However, these are not The Problem; because when the problems of a show are so fundamental - appropriate casting and good acting, with well-directed 'stars' in the major roles, could not make a qualitative difference to the effectiveness.  

The key word for Rings of Power is "inept". 

Despite, or more likely because of, its expensiveness; RoP fails to reach even the minimum acceptable standards of conception, plotting, script and editing. 

In watching TV; one just comes to take these for granted, even in shows one dislikes, even in shows that fail overall... One takes for granted that a show knows what it is trying to do, contains comprehensible storylines, with characters whose basic motivations and intentions are expressed in dialogue and action. 

And one expects that the editing of a show (its construction from the various plotlines, moving between the characters) is at least clear and unobtrusive...

One expects to understand what is going on, and to have an implicit sense of the kind of show one is watching (even when one dislikes this), and the kind of place it is aiming-at (even when the destination is somewhere nasty or dull). 

But it is in providing these fundamentals that Rings of Power fails most egregiously. 

For instance; there are (already) scores of 'characters' in dozens of settings - so none of them can possibly be knowable, and hardly any can be, or become, memorable. 

After being introduced-to an incomprehensible array of named characters in many civilizations in the first two parts; the third episode added yet another: "Numenor".

This showered us with even more new characters (Queen, Elendil, Isildur, Isildur's sister, some blacksmith bloke and his redshirt pals); each provided with an ultra-rapidly-sketched, supposedly defining- and motivating- backstory. 

During which Galadriel's shipwreck companion is 'developed' as yet another utterly unsympathetic 'major character' - by showing how just selfish, lying and gratuitously vicious he is; yet with the impression that he is intended to be a charming and brilliant rogue in the Han Solo mode.   

But surely it is basic 'film school' stuff to keep the number of characters, themes, and settings down to a manageable number? 

It is difficult enough to manage the plot with even six major characters, but it is certainly impossible-cubed to write a good script with as many "characters" as in Rings of Power; where every change of scene and episode piles more and yet more upon us. 

Certainly I don't care about any of the characters (and am actively bored or irritated by most); and the fact that the script is a gross, serial offender against the writers' workshop dictum "show, don't tell" is another problem. We are continually being told things about the races and characters, that are immediately and comprehensively contradicted by what we are shown

For instance the pseudo-hobbit 'Harfoots' keep telling each other, and singing, (both in a nauseatingly sentimental fashion), about how they have 'big hearts', and help each other - and that this is the basis of 'who we are'... But we are shown that they spend all their time bickering and confronting each other (and lying and stealing) - exactly like a cheap and nasty TV soap. 

When one old chap suffers a painful twisted ankle that persists such that he can't pull his handcart when the Harfoots are about to migrate - the near-universal expectation among the tribe is that he and his family will simply be left behind to die! 

This contradiction is compounded by an extraordinarily overlong and tedious scene; in which the Harfoots are shown reading a list of those previously left behind, with a cod-religious chorus intoning that 'we will wait for them' - i.e. exactly what they did not

There is one memorable character, called Galadriel - who we are told is an heroic leader; but who is shown as a sour-faced, over-promoted middle-manager; an entitled "Karen" - who happens to have ridiculously incredible super-powers (such as being able to swim - apparently - across thousands of miles of ocean). 

But her greatest super-power is certainly her egotistic selfishness. If she is pulled from the freezing sea, or is starving and gets handed food; she does not say thank you, nor indicate gratitude in any shape or form. Instead, whenever Galadriel is helped, she simply demands that her rescuers will instantly provide whatever resources and assistance her current whim dictates. 

Even this might be dramatically excusable for the major character if she had charm, charisma, allure... but there we are up-against the problem of miscasting compounded by bad direction (in which the actress is required to adopt the same peevish, gimlet-eyed, sour-mouthed facial expression through thick and thin - albeit admittedly her face is already well-suited to this). 

And Galadriel is supposed to function as a unifying thread through this sprawling mess? 


The editing is terrible - beyond bad. Some scenes are so rapid that we have little or no idea what has happened. This applies particularly to some of the fights - which are very badly paced, and lack key elements that let the audience understand what is going-on. 

Many other scenes are uneventful and inconclusive interactions without narrative relevance ('plot loops') drawn-out with numbing tedium. 

The pacing between scenes is astonishingly poorly done. Indeed, I have never experienced any editing quite so narratively disruptive on professional TV. 

The action cuts back and forth between the innumerable characters and locations, but the time flows with widely differing speeds. In the whole second episode; some scenes showed that days were passing and quite a lot happening... during which an Elf spent the entire period trudging along a short tunnel. 


In sum - I was expecting the Rings of Power At Least to achieve the level of a mainstream, clich├ęd, stereotyped, emotionally-manipulative and sometimes-exciting show (like Sword of Shannara) - but it does not reach even such modest heights.  

I am genuinely fascinated that such an inept, amateurish, ineffectual and ultra-expensive mess as RoP could have happened at all: I keep watching because I can hardly believe what I am seeing... 

In this regard, I think Rings of Power is a genuinely significant inflexion-point in the ongoing collapse of civilizational efficiency and effectiveness - akin to the UK Millennium Dome ("expensive, ugly, boring, unpopular and late"). Incompetence of this degree is no accident - but is instead diagnostic. 

Never in the history of light entertainment were so many resources expended to so little effect to benefit so few


Anonymous said...

Perfectly put and I simply could not agree more. RoP transcends mere awfulness and becomes a literal canary in our cultural mine.

WJT said...

I’m surprised you watched it at all. What were you expecting?

Anonymous said...

"What were you expecting?"

Well, as I explained in the first part of the essay: I was expecting something slick and subversive. What I got was neither.


(Blogger is not letting me comment from my account; for some obscure reason).

Anonymous said...

Seems a plausible review, though I will never know.
My exposure to modern Hollywood is entirely through the Pitch Meeting channel, from which I’ve learnt that all these things like narrative coherence and character building are considered by Hollywood to be, not merely hard and inconvenient, but ludicrous wastes of time. Their stuff sells anyway. Why would they care?

Jake G said...

I believe that it's bad on purpose. It almost has to be. The question is, why?

Anonymous said...

@Jake - Interesting idea. But I think it is genuinely incompetent - in a new kind of way. Probably because it was a product of committees throughout (and committees of people who don't understand how to make a TV drama and regard that as a priority), and because its political correctness was built-in from the ground-up and as the primary objective.

I think it is actually very difficult to create a decent quality TV drama - and it requires, above all, that the people involved are (at least unconsciously) trying to create something of decent quality. Even when work is done with an over-arching goal to make money (eg with Shakespeare's plays - where he was a theatre shareholder) there must be a desire to make money by doing good work.

What we have with RoP is what happens when the quality goal is taken for granted by people who have either lost or never had the motivation to do good work.

This criticism does not include the 'setting' of RoP - the landscape visuals - which are very good indeed - and show obvious evidence of both talent and the motivation to create beauty. Those in charge have obviously chosen with good motivations for that aspect of the program - and equally obviously chosen Not to do so for almost everybody else involved.

In other words, I regard this as a case of Not Even Trying to be good, rather than setting out to create something actively bad. The people involved are so advanced in their evil that they have lost the basic understanding that effective leftist propaganda still requires good quality of work.

AnteB said...

Pitch Meeting is hilarious!

Hari Seldon said...

A disturbing post that underscores the comprehensive nature of the West's decline/collapse.

It might be worth mentioning that I recently watched the highest grossing film of the year - and it was outstanding. Pure entertainment and spectacle, delivered with unbelievable technical skill, solid acting and a very good, satisfying screenplay. Notably, the film was entirely free of "woke," which I think was a deliberate choice by the filmmakers.

So this example suggests that great productions are still possible - at least on the big screen - if the goal is to entertain rather than indoctrinate. On the other hand, the film was many years in the making, with principal photography wrapping up in 2019(!), and standards are dropping rapidly, so I wonder if there will ever be any big-budget films of similar quality in the future.

Joseph A. said...

Your closing paean had me laughing. Perhaps, it is incompetence, but I hope that Jake is right -- maybe some decent folks sabotaged the production in a way that they knew would clear the internal (and thoroughly corrupted) censors. If so, kudos to them!

Michael Baron said...

I find it truly amazing they would spend this much money on something while doing practically nothing to oversee it. From what I understand, the two showrunners had never been in charge of any such project before, yet they were handed the keys and allowed to crash a billion-dollar supercar into a cherished historical building. Their unworthiness achieved supernatural proportions, but even that is outdone by their superiors' misworth in allowing it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael B: It is indeed amazing - which is why I regard RoP as a culturally significant inflexion point.

This could not have happened a few years ago, yet it has happened: therefore, it seems we have crossed a line. We can therefore expect to see more of the same kind of thing.

a_probst said...

"... a product of committees throughout..."

Many hands make trite work.