Rings Of Power (my thoughts on Amazon’s LotR prequel TV series)

Meh.

Okay, I need to explain my reaction. The production value of Rings of Power is top notch. They have a stellar art department, music by Bear McCreary, great actors, incredible costume design. The only thing that isn’t awesome is the writing/story. And it’s not bad. It’s just…

I don’t even blame the writing team, because I think their hands were tied. They had to work on a major IP with tons of investment money and not take storytelling risks. When you tell stories by committee without taking risks, you’re gonna get some bland storytelling. I think they did a great job, given the constraints they had. They did their best. And it wasn’t bad. The writing here is certainly a thousand times better than the travesty that was the Wheel of Time adaptation.

Judging by media buzz, few people guessed who Sauron was. Really? Is that true? Because it seemed obvious to me by episode 2.

And I guess people were wowed by the stranger with Nori, and didn’t see that ending coming? I saw it a mile away. The final episode “I’m good!” scene was still fun and satisfying to watch, but it was extremely predictable. I think most viewers guessed who the stranger is, in Lord of the Rings lore.

I enjoyed watching the elves, the dwarves, the harfoots, and the Numenorians.  But I didn’t feel invested in any of the characters. We all know Galadriel and Elrond survive, so there’s very little tension to those scenes. I guess a lot of people were charmed by Nori, but I found her charm to be very crafted/scripted. Didn’t care about Isildur. He gave off a spoiled Nick Cage vibe.  Theo, son of Bronwyn? He seemed like was about to go bad at any second, but turned out to going through a simplistic moral struggle that didn’t really seem cogent.  Durin & Disa were cute as a dwarf royal couple, and I did really enjoy their interactions with each other and with Elrond. But in the end, there isn’t much character conflict there, either. Durin’s conflict with his father is classic and predictable.

Every character in this show is going through bland, diluted, classical, predictable struggles. Galadriel thirsts for vengeance. That is all her character is about. Elrond is torn between friendships and duties. Meh. Durin has to obey his father. The Stranger is worried that he might be a peril, aka evil. Nori wants to wander instead of following the path. Arondir is torn between loyalty to his elven people and his love for a human (who is much younger than him, but that is never addressed). Etc. These are all very simple characters with simplistic, bare bones interactions.

The dialogues between Galadriel and Halbrand at the end? Those were okay, but not exceptional in the way that Game of Thrones (seasons 1-5) was. To me, it felt like it had to go through a lot of committee approval processes.

With everything else about this show being so exceptionally beautiful, it was hard for me to watch it wasted on mediocre storytelling. Those elven halls! Numenor! It was so gorgeous!

I wish Hollywood would dare to take risks on non-safe IPs again.

Umbrella Academy, best show on TV

When it comes to media, I read far more than I watch. The last show I binge-watched was Breaking Bad. I’ve also adored Game of Thrones (except for the final two seasons) and Stranger Things. I can name other shows that amused me pretty well: Bosch, Reacher, The Venture Brothers. But I think Umbrella Academy has edged out to be my actual favorite. It has all the ingredients I crave, and they’re done exceptionally well.

One thing I appreciate about Umbrella Academy is that the show-runner doesn’t waste time on long, lingering close-ups of faces or pointless scenes. Nor do the writers skip any world-building or story setup. Every scene is well-thought-through, well placed, and flows seamlessly to the next. Their sense of timing is *chef’s kiss* perfection.  That’s so important for cinema, yet I rarely see it done this well.

Another thing they have going for them is synergy. That cast of characters… it’s incredible that a show can have *so many* characters that remain interesting for multiple seasons and have great interpersonal dynamics and rapport with each other. Listen, I’ve written an epic series with a big ensemble cast of characters. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes effort that goes into making every one of them interesting, relatable, likable, and to amp up character contrast so that their interpersonal dynamics keep changing and remain engaging. Umbrella Academy proves that you can have 10+ regular characters in a show with 10 episodes per season (I’m including Pogo, Sir Hargreeves, “Mom,” and others) who contrast well with each other and remain memorable.  That’s just impressive. This is a skilled writing team plus a skilled casting director plus really awesome actors.

The special effects? Super impressive. I’ve seen shows with comparable budgets go very wrong in this area (Wheel of Time, how I mourn what you could have been). Umbrella Academy pays a lot of respect to visual artistry. The lighting, the costumes, the effects… just wow. They are superb. Perhaps that’s to be expected for a show based on graphic novels.

The music? Umbrella Academy even gets this right. I love the original score. I love the pop music they choose to blend into every episode. “Run Boy Run” by Woodkid has become one of my favorites.

One of the best things about the ongoing story is its complexity. They are juggling multiple timelines due to time travel, yet maintaining story cohesion and continuity. That is what really impresses me. I purposely avoided writing time travel into my epic series, because I was already juggling armies, space armadas, teleporting heroes, and mutant super-geniuses who can read minds. I’m seeing Umbrella Academy and nodding to the writers in respectful awe. At the same time, I can understand why the show-runner said that he’ll probably end it on season 4. Every season adds another layer of complexity, and holy moly, they created a storytelling masterpiece.

Finally, I admire how the show puts in moments of kindness and levity. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It subtly pokes fun at the asshole characters, and subtly uplifts the kindhearted characters. It riffs on superhero tropes. It remembers to have fun, giving the characters moments where they’re singing karaoke or going on road trips in between saving the world. It sends a message about the strength of sibling love. It’s just sweet. And messages like this seem to be so rarely found on TV.

There. I summarized my admiration without giving away a single spoiler!

© 2022 Abby Goldsmith