This is a review from someone who has not played the games or read the books, but in the interest of impartiality, I have heard secondhand that the books and original lore is pretty bad. The authors themselves are impertinent, but like I said, I will not be taking any of this in consideration. I will try to explain this by giving as few spoilers as I can.
It was just okay.
This may sound like an insult considering all the praise that the games and books have received and the way the show itself was advertised, but I think it’s commendable, coming from someone who has no knowledge of the books or video games. The show could have faltered in a lot of ways. Although it wasn’t perfect, however, it has a strong start and a strong end with some middling parts in the… middle.
It’s not quite the Game of Thrones knockoff I had expected, which is how it was heavily advertised. While they do share some basic elements, (a dark gritty fantasy show that jumps around between characters story-lines set against a device political intrigue with sprinkling of magic here and there) they are not one or the same. Perhaps the one aspect they do share is a lot of gratuitous nudity, which I’ll admit had me rolling my eyes at times. Suffice to say that in every other aspect it certainly isn’t anything like Game of Thrones, and that includes the better parts of it like the writing and characters and world building.
(On a side note, I utterly loathe that tired comparison now. Any show being made these days with a complex plot that jumps around from perspectives is suddenly ‘The Game of Thrones of ______’ and it’s tiring. Watch a new show already. Please, I’m begging you.)
As far as characters go, Geralt did begin to grow on me. He is cut from the same cloth of many of the handsome brooding fantasy protagonists but his deadpan and attachment to his horse was very endearing. His strong introduction in the first episode set him up in a way that I was excited to see his story develop. He has a bad case of being invincible in almost every encounter he accidentally steps in, but the well choreographed action set pieces and intrigue around seeing his magic powers used kept it from being a huge flaw in his character. It is necessary to say that, he is extremely handsome. On a very basic level he does function as good eye candy.
Jacksier, the comic relief tag along, was very irritating to me, which is controversial to say because apparently a lot of people seemed to enjoy him and his presence. I have to admit that, he has his moments of levity but they’re a hit or miss. It is mainly Geralt who is fascinating and who I enjoyed more as the comic relief – his deadpan deliveries and curses were more entertaining and I laughed more at this than I did at Jacksier’s attempts to spell out plot-lines or sing songs or demand praise from Geralt. Ciri too is a deeply sympathetic character and her story kept me particularly engaged because it had the most solid pacing. I can’t say much more about her without spoiling so, sorry.
Yennefer is complicated. Both in the show and in my response to her. My feelings towards the way she is written fluctuate, from disliking her somewhat sexist cliche purpose and goal, to loving it because of how layered and complex her history and reasoning is for it. Her story starts out fairly strong and seeing her point of view is interesting, watching her come up as a young sorceress, her sad roots were very sympathetic. There was one big glaring issue for me that became the crutch for her character motivation, which again, spoilers, but it’s one that I keep flip flopping on. I’ll say, I appreciate how she is essentially written as a villain and never tries to present her goals as anything other than being self-centred and her own interests. It helps that she is one of the more well written characters in the show and is very well acted. She’s not perfect, which I appreciate.
I imagine, it must be quite fun and exciting to know the lore and the characters, without it, however, it’s more jumbled and difficult to appreciate, because what you see is what you get, and sometimes what you see is the bare bones of a deeply rich and intricate world. The plot has no time to slow down and show you all the details of this world, to pace down and explain it, before it’s already rushing off and trying to tell another story in another time and place with more monsters and more witches. It feels very sporadic. While the story does have a slow comfortable pace in the beginning, specifically in regards to Yennefer’s, it doesn’t keep this careful pace up. Important character scenes and histories are kept off screen, or alluded to in brief flashbacks, making it deeply unsatisfying and even unearned to suddenly see two characters join together as though they’ve been madly in love for decades, when all we’ve seen as an audience is maybe one episode of their initial meeting. This is one of those issues where I imagine if you read the books or played the games, you wouldn’t face this problem, because you already know the rich past and history and the show caters to that audience. The show is aware that the audience knows, so it will not waste any and time get to the action that they want to see, because they know the history already. Meanwhile the audience witnessing it for the first time are left stumbling blind and bombarded new information at every turn with this strange pace.
I did express this frustration with a friend, wishing the show did more to express the lore and attitudes of the world, and she told me that a good way to really appreciate the show, was to basically do my homework and read online pdfs and fan translations of the entire book series, which baffled me. I do not expect to have to do homework before watching a TV show based on a video game or a book. If I did not have to do it for Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones then I don’t expect to do it now either.
The Witcher, is not appallingly bad, it’s a little bit wobbly on its feet as a standalone series and despite it’s misgivings, I am excited to see the next season. If you are a fan of gritty fantasy, or just want to ogle at Henry Cavill in leather or Anya Chalotra in pretty dresses then give it a try. If you’ve only a passing interest then I might not recommend it.