When I write about “Arcane”, I cry. When I search for images of it to run in an article, I start shedding tears. When I go through videos to see which one shows off its animation without too many spoilers, I’m overwhelmed. It wasn’t always this way. I went into the show, based off the video game “League of Legends”, with no detailed knowledge. The trailer looked interesting, the animation a potentially complex blend of oil painting, art nouveau and art deco, splash art, graffiti, scratch art, pop art, you name it. It was a shot in the dark, though. I had no expectations. Its opening scene is abruptly powerful and I was visually impressed by its opening heist, but content-wise, it’s any old cutscene. Then the street fight happened, and one shot told me I could be watching something remarkable.
You see the shot above. Vi has just returned with her gang from a botched amateur heist. Another gang tries to take the sack of stolen items that’s their only reward. The two sides fight, Vi’s younger sister Powder backed up against a wall and gripping the bag for dear life. Amidst a gritty, dusty, sloppy fight, we get a wide shot in slow motion, the blue-haired Powder at its center.
There is terror here, the fear of a child in danger, worried for her sister and friends yet incapable of helping in any way. The best she can do is cower and not get in the way. There is also a reverence to the shot. Its symmetry, stillness, and the separation of characters evokes the tableau of a stained glass window, as do the rays of light.
The sepia suggestions, that reverence, it begins to suggest nostalgia for this moment in a show we just started watching. And yet these are the good times, a moment of golden, preserved memory before far worse arrives. The music evokes a longing and yearning, as if you shouldn’t want this moment to pass.
The reason I react to “Arcane” the way I do, even a year later, is because the show is about losing what’s important – people who’ve died, illusions of fairness in the world, even memories and realities that are questioned. This moment is real. As violent and terrifying as it is, it serves as an anchor point in the middle of trauma.
It also describes Powder’s inability to help, and how Vi is torn between becoming a leader and taking care of her sister. One distracts from the other, and Powder is keenly aware of this. It describes Vi’s gang as the best at their amateurish level of theft and fighting, before a world they can’t possibly contend with crashes down on them. It’s their last moment in a reality when this is the worst they have to face, when they can go toe-to-toe against what threatens them. This will be gone soon.
The moment is deeply worrying for Powder, and it describes Vi’s inability to both fight and protect her. Yet it’s also a halcyon state, one memory that’s incorruptible amid so many that are. Powder’s later memories are represented through scratches on the film, a reality she aggressively tries to remove and overwrite for herself no matter how much it haunts her. As the show gets much, much darker and the audience grapples with just how much is erased and taken from certain characters, this shot and this scene also become more meaningful to us. It’s the last moment where ideals remain intact, where these characters preserve a more innocent understanding of their place in the world, and likewise the audience preserves more innocent ideas of what these characters will have to endure, as well as our preconceptions about Western animation’s ability to discuss trauma.
When I named “Arcane” the best show of last year, I said it was one of the best series ever made. I told you that if you take its trio of three-episode acts as films, it’s the best trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. You’d think those kinds of strong feelings for a show would fade. Sometimes that happens; it’s only natural for your top choices to shuffle over time. Hell, I understand if you think I was just being hyperbolic or overexcited. Yet I just keep thinking of “Arcane” and what it does. The more I look back at it, the more I revisit scenes, the better I think it is. There are so many visuals in it that can be pulled apart to reveal what it’s saying for its characters and world. There are so many echoes throughout, visual themes that dominate each character’s story, movements and shots that repeat as characters betray or become who they are. The entire story is told early on, but only in ways you can understand if you’ve already watched it all. Foreshadowing isn’t everything, it’s just one tool out of many for a storyteller, but I’ve never seen anything master that tool the way “Arcane” does.
Rarely does analyzing a shot or scene evoke so much emotion, yet the entire show is sequences that can be unfolded just like this. “Arcane” gives us this shot of poor Powder backed against the wall, scared for herself and her loved ones, desperate yet unable to help. It’s one of the first sequences in the first episode. It tells us this is a cherished memory. If this is what’s cherished, how much changes for her? If this violence is nostalgia, how will her norms be shaped? If Vi can’t protect her as a child, how is there any hope of doing so as the world closes in around them, seeking and persecuting them? Rewatching “Arcane” is to realize the storytellers have already made the answers to these questions obvious, we just don’t always want to see those answers until it’s far too late. If we won’t see them, how can these characters see them, as children? And if we shield ourselves from those hard truths in a story, in a safe place with storytellers we learn to trust, then how do we practice that in our own world, with less safety and trust?
“Arcane” is built to resonate, over and over within its own structure until it keeps on going when you’ve finished it, when you’ve put it away and moved on to other things. It keeps on going when you haven’t watched it for a year. It’s still as fresh in mind as when I first saw it, still contains surprises and thoughts worth dwelling on. This is the shot that convinced me “Arcane” was special, but it’s hardly alone, and even then I had no clue how remarkable or important it was, as a shot or as a show. There’s something about both that speak beyond the confines of a series to an era where our norms and realities are moved on a daily basis. “Arcane” wrestles with the erosive effects of traumatization when most shows – fantasy or reality-based – won’t even acknowledge there’s a need to be processing these thoughts right now.
When I saw this shot, I knew the show was special within its own space as a series. When I look back on it, I know it’s special outside of those confines. That’s why I cry when I start to write about this show, because in a world of constant trauma, where people’s norms are shoved aside by cults and con artists, I’m reminded that art serves as an anchor for our norms. I cry because being moved by something gentle can make me immovable against what isn’t.
The most important thing to understand about lists like this is that they’ll always exclude something. No critic can watch everything out there that’s worth watching. The choices a critic makes in what they prioritize can help you understand how a list like this can be useful.
For instance, even though many of my friends have raved about it, I just can’t bring myself to watch “Succession”. Perhaps it belongs on this list. Satire though it may be, I just can’t bring myself to spend that much time invested in which billionaire gets to make more billions while others go home super sad about only possessing the billions they already have. I’m sure it’s good. I’m sure I’d also feel a deep pit in my stomach even touching it.
As viewers, the feelings we have like that are legitimate, and every good critic is ultimately a viewer who has a desire to connect with and share what they love with others. There are times when we push our comfort, for good and bad reasons, and there are times where we realize we can do more or better work in other places.
It was a priority for me to watch series from different countries. It’s great that South Korean series “Squid Game” is breaking through, and it’s on my list. Yet if we were really being inclusive in our viewing choices, South Korea’s television industry is so overbrimming it should be getting best-of entries every year.
When “Squid Game” is a breakthrough rather than part of a norm, it means that critics are following audiences rather than shining a light on what’s next. If “Squid Game” hadn’t set viewing records, would it have made so many critics’ year-end lists? Probably not, because there’s a well of other Korean series of equal quality in this year and years past.
Is “Squid Game” the only entry on a list from somewhere outside the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.? Then you know something about that critic’s scope. Don’t get me wrong – watching more international series means that I’ve sacrificed watching a few U.S. ones. My point isn’t that one is inherently better than the other; my point is that this information gives you a perspective on what different lists can tell you.
What other priorities inform this list? I tend to lean toward series that buck tradition and try something risky or ambitious. If there’s an element of absurdism, abstraction, or magical realism that’s pulled off well, I tend to like it even if it asks me to do that much more work as a viewer. I like empathy, not just on the part of a series, but also in being asked as a viewer to stretch and view perspectives I might not have sought out in the past.
I don’t mind if a series occasionally shortcuts a plot point with the mutual understanding viewers have seen it a thousand times before and can assume the A-to-B of it. I think world-building doesn’t matter that much for the world you’re creating; I need to see how it’s shaped the lives, understandings, and relationships of the characters who live in that world.
I don’t mind a little bit of melodrama. Where the U.S. tends to incorporate theatrical and even melodramatic performances told within a “gritty”, verite-heavy filmmaking approach, a lot of the rest of the world prefers more understated, verite performances told within a melodramatic filmmaking delivery. We all secretly like melodrama; the only difference is where we place it.
Oh, and some of the best series of recent years have been canceled prematurely. If you’re looking at committing to a series, it helps to know if it’s self-contained or will get to continue, rather than simply being canceled. I’ll mention on each whether it’s been renewed. On with the list:
10. What We Do in the Shadows
The series adaptation of the 2014 mockumentary follows a trio of vampires and their familiar living together on Staten Island. In season three, they’ve just been named leaders of their local vampiric council. It seems like a success, but it’s really the beginning of the group fracturing apart.
Past seasons have been funny, skewering horror movies, bureaucracy, and the “Office” style mockumentary format itself. This season turns into something else, though. Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillen, and Kayvan Novak all feel like they have rangier roles to play, while still allowing room for now-regular Kristen Schaal to hit the ground running. It’s Matt Berry, in all his skill at overblown bluster, who ultimately reveals the deep heart the show’s built upon.
Without losing its humor, “What We Do in the Shadows” turns into a moving consideration of how found family unites and bonds – and also drifts apart. Questions about feeling lost in the world and wanting meaning abound in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and loaded with ennui. It feels like “What We Do in the Shadows” has taken on a much larger mantle than it has before, one that feels more immediate, relevant, and invested in the humanity of its inhuman characters.
Is “What We Do in the Shadows” renewed? Yes. A fourth season will premiere in 2022.
9. Squid Game
“Squid Game” exquisitely describes the world we live in. Gambling addict Gi-hun is roped into a get-rich quick scheme. Go play some children’s games for a few days, and make millions. Effectively estranged from his daughter, he sees it as his only chance at making amends. The others who show up to play are similarly hard up – they owe money to the government, loan sharks, gangs, you name it. Even when it becomes apparent the losers of the games are all killed, the realities of the world outside make it clear that they have about as much chance in the games as they do in the corrupt, abusive world of late-stage capitalism.
There are wrinkles that I won’t divulge. Like any large organization, the place isn’t exactly run terribly well. Players cheat, employees cheat, all to make an extra buck. There’s as much tension in whether the games will continue as in who wins them. At the point where we as an audience are anticipating the next game and hoping it goes on, what does that say about us?
Lee Jung-jae gives an incredible performance as Gi-hun. He creates one of the most complex characters of the year. He’s at once deeply charming and hopeful, someone at his best when helping others, yet he’s also manipulative and constantly seeking enablement. It’s a delicate balance to still make us like and hope for him.
Oh Yeong-su captured every viewer’s heart as the elderly Oh Il-nam. Lost in some of the conversation is Jung Hoyeon, playing a North Korean escapee who wants the money to help her family leave that country. She’s asked once whether the outside is better, as she weighs the value of her own life against someone else’s for money. She doesn’t answer.
Is “Squid Game” renewed? It seems to be, but they’re going to take their time with it. If I had to bet, I’d guess we won’t see a Season 2 until 2023 at the earliest.
8. The Club
This Turkish drama is lavish, intricate, and deeply felt, with a melodramatic flourish that reflects the 1955 nightclub at its center. Matilda is freshly released from prison after serving time for murder. She has a nearly grown daughter, Rasel, but Matilda doesn’t want to see her. She simply plans to leave for Israel. This is derailed when Rasel steals from the club and Matilda agrees to work off a blank debt.
The drama of “The Club” rises from defining Turkish cultural conflicts. The East and West meld and clash. As Matilda is Jewish, the shadow of the Varlik Vergisi weighs heavily on her past. This was a 1942 tax on non-Muslims that resulted in a massive transfer of wealth based on religion and ethnicity, and the forced internment of those who couldn’t pay
Characters in “The Club” don’t serve as metaphors for these events and influences, but they have lived through them. These shape characters’ histories, biases, hopes, and fears. The cast is roundly superb. Gokce Bahadir stands out as Matilda, as does Salih Bademci’s visionary but self-sabotaging singer Selim Songur. Firat Tanis is exceptional as the club’s corrupt, abusive manger Celebi. He has a connection to Matilda’s past she hasn’t figured out.
If you can feel at ease with a few melodramatic fluorishes, such as a swelling music cue here or there, “The Club” has an underlying magic that’s difficult to define. It transports in the way the best period pieces do, and the characters feel a genuine part of that lived-in history. It has that sweeping, yearning sense that comes from depicting a place through both the details of its world, and the conflicting emotional realities of those who live within it.
Is “The Club” renewed? Part 2’s already been filmed and premieres very soon, on January 6, 2022.
7. Only Murders in the Building
Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short star in a comedy mystery. A man’s been murdered in their New York apartment building, and they take it upon themselves to solve what the police have deemed a suicide. They’re bumbling at best, and on top of it all, decide to make a podcast about it. “Only Murders in the Building” speaks to our true crime media addiction, one that seems to prioritize narrative over truth. Luckily, these three veer wildly enough to occasionally dig up some morsel of a clue.
Martin and Short are 80s comedy legends, so it might surprise that it’s Gomez who most solidly anchors the story. Between this, “Spring Breakers”, and “The Dead Don’t Die”, she’s delivered three exceptional performances and should be thought of more seriously. The supporting cast includes Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Aaron Dominguez, Jane Lynch, and Sting, toying relentlessly with the idea that the famous guest star must be guilty.
What “Only Murders in the Building” is really about is loneliness, though. Each of the three leads deals with loneliness, isolation, trauma, and regret in very different ways. Gomez’s Mabel is self-sufficient and deliberate in her actions, Martin’s Charles is locked in an unthinking, melancholic routine, and Short’s Oliver reaches out constantly to those he’s already disappointed or betrayed. That “Only Murders in the Building” works as a caring, empathetic examination of loneliness, and a wildly successful comedy is a uniquely disarming pairing.
Is “Only Murders in the Building” renewed? Yes. The first season leaves a cliffhanger for a Season 2 that was picked up quickly and is currently filming. Expect it sometime in 2022.
6. My Name
You could pick any number of Korean series for this list and have a strong argument. “My Name” was the one that captured me the most. The premise of a woman joining the police to track down a killer within their ranks reflects a number of other undercover gangster projects: particularly “The Departed” and its inspiration “Infernal Affairs”.
“My Name” mixes together a number of familiar elements from John Woo action films to Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy and Michael Mann projects like “Heat” and “Miami Vice”. I’d even say it does so better than its more well-known progenitors. It also avoids creating a false nobility for the gangs the way so many highly regarded U.S. projects have done in the past. What’s here is brief, brutal, and feels far more grounded than flights of golden era Mafia-worshiping.
“My Name” pitches to a fever intensity by the second episode that it refuses to let go until the series’ end. Han So-hee carries nearly every minute of the show. She delivers one of the top performances this year.
The action scenes feature creative fight choreography with a lot of moving pieces. There’s an evocative editing that reflects the single-minded drive of the show’s lead, while also pushing the emotions she can’t allow herself to feel. One interesting decision in the show is to lean heavily on a single song, repeating in different circumstances. It reflects how Ji-woo (undercover as police officer Hye-jin) has honed herself to just be one thing, to have a singular intent no matter the circumstance. In many ways the show is edited and scored to feel what its lead has compartmentalized away. “My Name” is one of the best revenge sagas of recent memory.
Is “My Name” renewed? Like many Korean series, “My Name” is designed as a fully self-contained season. It’s not designed to be renewed, so it’s unlikely.
“Evil” follows a team that assesses mysteries for the Catholic Church. These range from suspected demonic possessions to investigating a potential sainthood. What makes the show work so well is that only one member of the team of three is Catholic – a priest in training named David. The psychologist Kristen and debunker Ben are both Atheist, though from different backgrounds. Kristen is a lapsed Catholic and Ben was raised Muslim.
The discussions they have in trying to figure out the mysteries are extremely well-written, and range from the personal to the philosophical. They add significant weight and meaning to the best horror show on TV right now.
Usually, I don’t go in for Catholic horror. It’s all so inconsistently codified it gets a bit silly to me. “Evil” doesn’t try to hide or explain away those inconsistencies, or avoid criticisms of the Catholic Church. Those inconsistencies and criticisms confuse and divide the characters, too. Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, Michael Emerson, and Christine Lahti make up my favorite ensemble of the year.
“Evil” reflects earlier unexplained investigation shows like “The X-Files” and “Fringe”, but it does a much better job than either of giving you multiple explanations. Some of its mysteries are debunked, others aren’t. When something is explained, is that simply the path something demonic took to achieve it? In some episodes, they don’t even know which religion’s demons are in question. Many situations are solved without being fully fixed, which feels realistic. By sometimes denying us the closure of consequence, “Evil” feels that much more consequential. The writing makes it reasonable that the believer still believes, that the Atheists don’t, and that they can all identify a common trust and productive purpose that pushes them forward as a team.
“Evil” also has a wicked, occasionally fourth-wall breaking sense of humor. Demons troll visions from God with meme gifs. A nearly dialogue-free episode at a silent monastery has way too much fun with subtitled inner thoughts. The pop-up book used to introduce episodes to the audience in the second season becomes real to the characters midway through.
Perhaps the biggest strength of “Evil” is one that it could be a little rough getting down in its first season: it incorporates elements of kitsch, camp, and meme culture in quiet, understated ways that subvert our expectations, unravel our explanations, and unnerve us with the very things that usually feel a refuge.
Is “Evil” renewed? Yes. A third season was announced halfway through season two, reflecting a strong showing. Expect it sometime in 2022.
4. Reservation Dogs
Four indigenous teens try to make sense of reservation life after losing their friend. They steal in order to save enough money to leave, some reconnecting with their families and some drifting further away. The series features all indigenous writers and directors, and a mostly indigenous cast. The amount of talent working here, that other studios and platforms have routinely overlooked, is staggering: Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-a-Tai, Lane Factor, Sarah Podemski, Dallas Goldtooth, Gary Farmer, Lil Mike and Funny Bone, Elva Guerra, each of them could probably lead their own shows.
It shows in the final result, with even small scenes taking on emotional weight and stellar comic timing. “Reservation Dogs” hearkens back to 90s indie comedy, particularly in its small-scale, sometimes aimless tone. Yet 90s indie comedy could also spark of a lot of privilege; “Reservation Dogs” uses the form to critique and highlight life without it. It has a way of building that the genre never had, of revealing moments that are far more real and relevant.
One thing I really appreciate here is that the comedy isn’t directed at me. It’s created to make indigenous people laugh. As a viewer, there are expectations of me to broaden my understanding of comedy staples and the truths they can evoke. “Reservation Dogs” doesn’t come with every reference explained, but that can help me see what an episode is doing in a way I wouldn’t if the explanation was catered to me.
There are absolute gems of episodes here: “NDN Clinic” turns an aimless, meandering day into a perfect memory, “Come and Get Your Love” connects the importance of legend to who we become, “Hunting” is a stunning, haunting, and funny reflection on loss, and “California Dreamin’” is a chance for Jacobs to demonstrate just how phenomenal an actor she is.
Is “Reservation Dogs” renewed? Yes. A second season has been announced for 2022.
3. Sonny Boy
An entire high school shifts out of reality, into a dimension of nothingness. The adults are nowhere to be found. The students organize, trying to make the best of the situation. As they shift through more dimensions, they realize some students have powers. Imbalances develop. The group splits, looks for people to blame, re-organizes. The dimensions they investigate each have their own rules, often born of metaphor, as if designed.
Magical realism and metaphor can struggle to work together in balance. One or the other usually takes over as a story’s focus, regardless of the medium. That’s fine, but “Sonny Boy” takes a difficult path in balancing the two elegantly. The series is exceptionally abstract: complex, disjointed, full of time skips, dimensions that only half-explain themselves, powers that equip the students with magical tools that look like toys, rulesets within rulesets.
The result is a series that would become too confusing to grasp if it wasn’t so well-guided by meaning. We make sense of the meaning first, and then the logic comes around and fills in some gaps, often hitting in a Kafka-esque way that can hurt. “Sonny Boy” begins to feel like an impressionist landscape of relationships, joys, anxieties, dreams, regrets. Moments can feel like a gut punch, yet never because of something over-emotive. Instead, it’s because we make sense of why a meaning is shaped the way it is. Why is a world designed just so? Why does a character leave something unspoken? What disaffection in the powerful shapes a society? What part of ourselves do we leave behind in order to adapt? What loss means enough to still be guided by the one we lost, or to even repeat that loss?
“Sonny Boy” can feel like an expression of helplessness, or the determination to work against that lack of hope. It manages to be both sides at once, to show the dual natures within us that feel forlorn at trying to change the world, and that will do our best to try anyway. No other show this year captures what it is to grow up, to put our past selves away even as we keep parts of them alive, to pair the joyful with the bittersweet, to choose the difficult because it’s at least a choice, to do the thankless because it’s right. No other show this year is so deeply, relentlessly, and sometimes pitilessly human.
Is “Sonny Boy” renewed? “Sonny Boy” seems expressly designed as a single, self-contained season. It’s original, not based on a manga or other source material, so there’s no outside indication to think it would continue. Its ending is perfect in what it says, so in many ways I hope this season is it.
2. Made for Love
Hazel is trapped with everything she could ever want. She’s married to billionaire Byron Gogol, and lives in a holographic mansion with access to anything and anywhere. She’s desperate to either kill herself, or escape. She does the latter, only to discover he’s implanted a chip in her head that’s designed to fuse their minds together as one.
The high-concept premise works as both an extremely dark comedy, and as a cyberpunk allegory. Both center on our interconnected world, where who we are is whoever we portray, regardless of its reality, and where that portrayal itself becomes our source of fulfillment.
I’ve worked with people who’ve been stalked, and I’ve been stalked myself. Scenes of this in “Made for Love” are as close as I’ve seen to the horror of feeling like someone else controls where you can even feel safe, and what your choices are. Cristin Milioti is getting wildly overlooked for her role as Hazel.
The comedy here can range pretty far afield. Hazel’s refuge and ear for fundamentally feminist issues is her estranged father (Ray Romano), who turns out to now be in a relationship with a sex doll. Investigators on both sides are regularly distracted or incompetent. These things always come back to reflect on the core, though: the horror of who we are being controlled by who someone else wants us to be. When who we are and what we’re fulfilled by is a portrayal we project, and someone else gains control of it, then who the hell are we anymore?
Is “Made for Love” renewed? Yes. Season 2 is likely to drop in 2022.
An overwhelmed technocrat stands before a warlord. It’s the technocrat’s city, but this doesn’t feel like his space. He is in uniform. She is naked in a bath, getting a massage. Between them in the frame stands the mural of an army. They face him, spears descending row by row until they come to point at him. He is out of his element. She is biding her time.
The rain in Caitlyn’s life always slides down surfaces in fits and starts. You can’t keep track of the lines it traces. It gives an impression of movement as she stays still, grasping to make a decision before others make it for her. She always meets the consequences head on, but she’s never able to track the cause and effect well enough to get ahead of them.
Two men stop each other on a ledge at different points in their lives. One meets the moment with closed eyes, the other open. They both offer support in ways they may not fully realize.
The voices of those lost are scratches on the film. The memories are drawn over like a child scratching out a word. She hides their expectations for her, their criticisms of her. Jinx destroys the reality of the story itself, even as we’ve seen it. She erases what we’ve witnessed so that she can rewrite her story as she pleases.
“Arcane” follows so much – twin cities that are breaking apart through inequality, an abusive police force, generations of characters whose accomplishments and mistakes echo in government, magic, and war for decades to follow. It follows young idealists who concede in order to realize ideals now poisoned. It follows a fight for freedom and self-determination. It follows a woman who’ll stop at nothing to save her abandoned sister, a…terrorist? A freedom fighter? It portrays the best romance of the year, a lesbian relationship that develops in fits and starts because of the overwhelming nature of the life-or-death decisions happening around them.
Crafted by French studio Fortiche, “Arcane” is one of the best pieces of fantasy put to screen. It’s an incredible leap forward in animation, fusing 3D and 2D approaches into something genuinely new. It’s the best piece of western animation since I was five. It’s the best piece of steampunk on film or TV. Its world-building is on par with something like “The Golden Compass”. It released as three acts, three episodes apiece, and if you wanted to call each act a film, then I’d call it the best film trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. Forget the modifiers; it’s thus far one of the best shows ever made. Even when I write these things, it feels like I’m understating just how emotional, artistic, and impactful “Arcane” really is.
“Arcane” is the show I always dreamed about because I knew it could never be made. I’m not talking about the source material, with which I’m only vaguely familiar. I mean what it becomes as a series. There’s not an episode I didn’t shed tears at – sure, because some parts are so human and empathetic, and sure, because it’s unique and overwhelming in its beauty. Yet there’s something deeper, something more artistically fundamental at play. It’s because when you’re in the rhythm of a phrase, when the poet or the painter needs you to yearn or smile or break, there’s a giving up at play. There’s a loosing of control that’s utterly rare, that requires so high a trust be given over.
Maybe it happens for a moment, when a word pierces our guard, when the twist of an idea is pushed home. That’s the thing – you expect it to happen for a moment before your guard returns. You don’t expect it to be down for hours at a time. You don’t expect to trust that much. What an impossible space that would be. What a relief in a world that batters us so much.
This is what “Arcane” creates so well. It’s a harrowing story, complexly told, beautifully depicted, it’s an advanced course in French art history, but above all it manages that impossible thing – it delivers that magic of becoming a place so beautifully, it feels safe to relinquish your burdens while you’re there. You’re in a storyteller’s hands, and what they’ve made is crafted with such exceptional, seemingly unprecedented care, you can feel the whole thing without guard.
One of the hidden measures of quality in any fantasy show is how comfy its inn looks. Is there a cozy inn with attached tavern you can picture going back to day after day? If “The Wheel of Time” says yes, then we’re talking a fantasy show that knows where its priorities lie.
I’m only partly kidding. What I look for most in a fantasy show (or movie, or game) is whether it feels lived-in. Do the people inhabiting its towns and streets actually feel like they live and work there, as if they’ve known each other for years? World-building starts with the people who live in that world, and “The Wheel of Time” gets this right. It spends most of its first episode establishing a lovely mountain town of close-knit families and friends. I’m sure nothing bad will happen to it.
When you feel you could just watch a show entirely about this town of people living their everyday lives, that makes leaving it behind difficult not just for its characters, but its viewers, too. Yet when a powerful sorceress – called an Aes Sedai – shows up in town, trouble is soon to follow. She and her very able swordsman leave with four of the town’s youths who are being stalked by an army of Trollocs (beastfolk) and their shadowy special agents. Any one of them might be the reincarnation of the Dragon, a figure prophesied to either end the world or fix it.
If that sounds a bit formulaic, like a certain wizard, ranger, and four hobbits, understand that “The Wheel of Time” came in the middle of modern fantasy’s developmental timeline. Western fantasy was defined by the hero’s journey when the first book of Robert Jordan’s 14-novel series was published in 1990. Fantasy series from that time didn’t necessarily challenge that structural foundation, but where they did excel was in the world-building and social commentary that made each unique.
Here is where “The Wheel of Time” as a series succeeds. Its world reads as middle ages, but with echoes of a renaissance or early modern period that previously collapsed. You see, the last time the Dragon was kicking around, he nearly destroyed civilization. It remains fractured and internally warring.
One thing the show does is it offers a society that’s very diverse – they’ve had thousands of years since their early modern era, which is far more than we’ve had. That small mountain town with the nice inn has people of all races and ethnicities in it. It is deeply refreshing to see a fantasy series that takes place in a different world simply start with this as a given fact.
The Aes Sedai are all women – because the last Dragon was a man, the only people entrusted with magic in this world are women. That puts the Aes Sedai in a position of power, but the Aes Sedai are rarely seen by most. Women in the town, however, are treated with equality and have the same jobs and stature as men.
These aspects are relieving and energizing to see in a major fantasy series. You could argue that following what amounts to a D&D party is either too familiar or comfortably so, but the presentation of the world and who lives in it feels like a deep breath in the genre that we rarely get to take.
I’d also be on the side of arguing that the familiar half of “The Wheel of Time” is very well done. The writing is straightforward, but manages to pack an awful lot into each hourlong episode. I’d usually end up two-thirds through thinking it had to be over because each episode had already covered more than most hour-and-a-half movies manage, yet there’d still be more story to enjoy. The writing doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s incredibly efficient – all the more remarkable for how patient and unrushed its dialogue scenes feel.
“The Wheel of Time” has the same nose for quiet conversation in the midst of turmoil that Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy possesses. I have to imagine these are mostly dialogue passages lifted from the book, but there’s some beautiful in-scene writing at times. Those quiet conversations are really the best moments in the show so far, which is a testament to the kind of lightning in a bottle that good casting, writing, performances, and editing can achieve.
The four who have to leave their town are all solidly cast. When I describe a D&D party structure, I’m not exaggerating. There’s Madeleine Madden’s potential magic user Egwene, Josha Stradowski’s ranger Rand, Barney Harris’s thief Mat, and Marcus Rutherford’s tanky blacksmith Perrin. There’s also their town Wisdom Nynaeve, played by Zoe Robins, and the Aes Sedai’s protector Lan played by Daniel Henney. There’s not a weak link among the actors, and they cover a range of personalities that’s interesting to see in both partnership and conflict.
The casting of Rosamund Pike as Moiraine, the Aes Sedai who kickstarts this whole journey, is a masterstroke. There’s a scene in the second episode where the party’s been through some rough shenanigans and is starting to bicker. One starts a song and the rest join in. It’s something their town sings, but they don’t know what the subject of the song is. It’s been lost to history, but it’s something that an Aes Sedai knows. Moiraine describes the bloody moment in their world’s history that’s being sung. She’s drained by now, injured and using her magic to keep the energy of her horses and companions up. Most shows wouldn’t have kept the monologue, or they’d have shortened it to a few lines and someone’s reaction shot. Here, Pike grabs us for a three minute monologue where no one else speaks and nothing else happens. She doesn’t let go, Moiraine’s speech gently slurring from exhaustion as she tells a tragic story with reverence.
I’ve never read any of the “The Wheel of Time” novels, but that moment, that feel – it’s exactly the kind of thing I want in a fantasy series. The battles and fights are compelling because there’s a weight of places left behind, a foundation of stories told, fragile connections made by relationships built or strained along the journey.
To feel as if we’re watching moments in a world’s history, we need to know the characters in ways they may not know each other, and we need to know the shape of that history. A lot of shows can manage one or the other, either the intimate or the epic. It’s rare when you get a fantasy entry that can do both with this much skill.
The choral-heavy musical score by Lorne Balfe is also exquisite, balancing a blend of song, celebratory medieval instruments and tense, driving electronic elements. There’s a fusion of traditional balladry with good new age that feels very aligned to this world without losing that larger, epic feel. Its sense of rising tension carries us through the sometimes sudden shifts in place that this kind of adaptation demands. The score stands as one of the best and most unexpected of the year.
It’s also nice to see something aside from orcs and goblins as the baddies. Trollocs seem to come in at least two flavors of beastfolk: 10-foot tall minotaurs, and smaller, four-legged hyena-satyr things. A lot is done with make-up, costuming, prosthetics, and special creature effects. This focus on a live-action base for the creatures is the right choice. They have a weight and presence that is immediately felt. Since they start bashing and slicing everything in sight when they show up, it’s also important that the choreography and editing sells them as terrifying. “The Wheel of Time” nails this, too. They’re presented with a brutality and suddenness that skips any kind of prologue or anticipation. They’re stronger than people, faster than people, and it shows. No one has time to describe them as terrible before they just show up and start hacking and feasting.
There are some negatives, and in large part they’re apparent because they’re surrounded by so many positives. While the make-up, costuming, and live special effects are all well done, the CGI visual effects can fail at points.
There’s an argument that magic is more successful in live-action when the visual focus is its consequence rather than the CGI moment of effect. For instance, focusing on the consequence more than the casting is the approach “The Witcher” takes very effectively.
By contrast, in “The Wheel of Time” you will see every fireball launched, every rock hurled, every bolt of lightning struck, every magical shield, um, shielded. People’s mileage varies with these kind of effects – to me, these moments do look cheesy. Sometimes I’d mind that, but here it doesn’t bother me too much. Part of my forgiveness is: hey, where else are you going to see Rosamund Pike hurl a building at a minotaur?
The other part is that there is a cost to these actions. Every Aes Sedai is accompanied by a Warder, a combination warrior/tracker/companion/sounding board. They have a magical connection that allows them to draw on each others’ strength.
There’s a neat logic between Aes Sedai and Warder, where Moiraine takes time charging her spells and is vulnerable. During these moments, her Warder Lan has to protect her, whirling around and ending anyone or anything that gets too close. If you’ve ever played a pen & paper role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, or a CRPG like “Dragon Age” or “Baldur’s Gate”, the notion of protecting your spellcaster while they charge a spell up is a geeky kind of cool to see done on-screen this literally. They don’t cheat or edit past it, they just have Moiraine take set amounts of time charging high-level spells while Lan dances around her decapitating minotaurs. At that point, I don’t mind if the fireballs look cheesy or the boulders she hurls need more render passes. I just want to see minotaurs go flying.
Nonetheless, other moments of CGI effects don’t fare so well. It could be a taste thing and I just don’t like this particular aesthetic of CGI. I love the static elements – abandoned cities, ruins they pass, a besieged city in one prologue. It’s the moving elements I’m not completely sold on: water splashing as a trolloc runs through a river, the swirls of magic, the strangely Tron-like lattice effect of a magical barrier.
The show also travels at a pace, and it can seem a bit sudden when characters appear in a completely different biome. The geography and the passage of time could be communicated better. Where one character seems to be in the next morning, another pair have climbed a mountain. It’s not a big deal for a series like this where travel and distance are more of an impressionistic aspect of myth-telling, but these shifts could feel more cohesive. It does help that the locations they spend longer periods of time in are beautifully realized, and as I mentioned earlier the music does some heavy lifting to smooth these transitions.
I’m not going to say “The Wheel of Time” is the best piece of fantasy out right now when the audacious and jaw-dropping “Arcane” is less than a month old and season 2 of “The Witcher” is weeks away, but if you’re looking for a satisfying example of traditional fantasy that’s well written and acted, “The Wheel of Time” is a very cozy blanket to nestle into as the nights get longer.
You can watch “The Wheel of Time” on Amazon. The first four episodes are available now, with a new one dropping every Friday for a first season total of eight. It’s already renewed for a season 2. That’s half-filmed so the wait probably won’t be too long.
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