Review: 'The Witcher'

I will be the first to admit that I am likely not the target audience for the new Netflix series "The Witcher." I'm not much of a fan of magic-tinged fantasy stories and while I really enjoyed "Game Of Thrones," that was more a reflection of the cast and storyline than any deep-seated love I have for the genre. And while "The Witcher" has been a successful string of book and video games, I came into this show having absolutely no sense of what to expect or expectations I would enjoy it.

Having watched the entire eight-episode premiere season that dropped on Netflix last Friday, I can report that much to my surprise - and despite some extreme confusion at times - I found "The Watcher" to be engrossing and unexpectedly entertaining. Even if I am still left with the unsettling feeling that I missed a lot of important backstory along the way.

"The Witcher" stars Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia, a monster-slayer Witcher who finds himself a bit of a viral hero thanks to the vaguely truthful songs created by the bard Jaskier (Joey Batey), who apparently becomes this land's answer to Ed Sheeran. He mopes his way through the landscape, killing monsters for money and grunting "hmm" in a surprising diverse range of circumstances. And as often the case in these stories, he stumbles across a meaning for his life that is larger than himself.

The first episode packs a lot of exposition and backstory into 65 minutes and at the end of it, you'll likely still not have a much of a clue about how these characters are connected and why any of it matters enough to be the focus of a book/video game/TV series franchise. That will become clear-ish 3-4 episodes in, but be prepared to mutter "what the f**c was that about?" at random points in every episode. The confusion will be heightened when you realize the show unpredictably jumps back-and-forth across the decades and since the Witcher and some of the other characters don't age at human rates, it's sometimes feels as if you'll need a large whiteboard and a handful of colored markers to keep track of it all.

Geralt's story is interwoven with the stories of the crippled stable girl-turned beautiful & powerful mage Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra). Even though in many of their scenes, I was left with the sense I was missing some crucial piece of backstory that is apparent to readers of the books. Much of the season finds Geralt trying to find the orphaned princess Ciri (Freya Allan), although the reasons seems mostly to be because of destiny or Geralt's decision to ask for a surprise oath from Ciri's parents. 

But I ended up enjoying "The Witcher" because series showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich is confident enough to make momentarily confusing creative decisions, trusting it will all work out. The final two episodes of the season begin wrapping together the myriad of timelines and seemingly confusing story choices in a way that is just perfect, leading up to a final moment in episode ten that makes season one feel creatively more like a ten-hour extended trailer than an entire season of a show.

Netflix has already ordered a second season of "The Witcher" and it's no wonder. The show is unlike anything else the streaming service has right now, and even though it is a relatively expensive show to produce, it's a better bet than dropping a billion dollars or so on a "Lord Of The Rings" prequel, like Amazon is doing right now.

I look forward to season two even if I feel as if I should seek out some of Andrzej Sapkowski’s short stories and novels just to figure out some of what I missed in season one of the TV series.

"The Witcher" premiered Friday, December 20th, 2019 on Netflix.