Better than it started
Guess who has just finished watching Shadow and Bone? me! And you get a review (that was supposed to be short but, oh well)
The show could be summarised as “it ended better than it started”. Way, way better actually. I don’t think many shows actually achieve that, it’s more common for stories to be the same quality all over or get worse over time, than it is to develop into something better. And I can point, with precision, at the moment Shadow and Bone got an upgrade: episode 5, the royal party episode. It’s a great episode, sitting right into the middle: it’s the turning point, the story shifts gears and from that point onward it just falls into a natural development toward climax and ending.
What comes before... isn’t as great. Which I think can be a problem when trying to keep new viewers interested. However, that was probably never a priority. Shadow and Bone falls neatly into the category of tv series inspired by books/games/comics, therefore its main aim (and strength) is getting all the fans of its franchise to watch it. Attracting a new public is welcomed, sure, but secondary. These kinds of adaptation can get away with bare minimum character introductions and little lore exposition. Personally, I don’t think that’s great storytelling: relying on previous fan knowledge kinda feels like cheating. Thus, the series isn’t new-fan friendly. It’s certainly watchable, but compelling and clear since the start? Not sure. I’d recommend starting from episode 5 if that were something that could make sense, but it won’t.
In fact my (rather personal) beef with episode 1 to 4, is hilariously contrary to my expectations toward the series and my feelings when reading the books. Premise: I read Shadow and Bone, the first book in the series, and the two Six of Crows books. I hated Shadow and Bone. Despite being intrigued by its worldbuilding, Alina’s point of view proved insufferable to me. You have to understand, at over 20 years old I think I was just outside the target audience for it; I had read plenty of stories like these, it was just all extremely predictable, boring. Six of Crows instead, was my jam (and just better written tbh). So here I am, having chosen to watch this show only for Kaz, Inej, and Jesper.
... and then I ended up staying for Alina’s story. Yeah.
You see, episode 1 to 4 had on me the same effect Shadow and Bone (the book) had: I just wanted to skip scenes. In fact I did. I mostly skipped scenes with Mal because, remembering the book well, I really didn’t need them, and I just wanted to get to the good bits. At the same time, I felt that all the crows scenes in this first half of the show were too rushed, too quick, and confusing. I kept on wondering what someone unfamiliar with these characters would think of this half of the story; they’d probably be annoyed by what felt secondary interruptions to the main storyline. I do think the two set of characters have been brought together beautifully, I like the plot idea that tie them, it works! The pacing though, that’s off. Picture two trains running on parallel tracks: they’re supposed to stay parallel as much as possible, but the Crow train bizarrely seems to move faster, while staying in place, while the Shadow train goes slower, but covers more ground. That’s the first four episodes for me. Bit odd. What saves these four episodes though, is exactly what I hated of the S&B book: its predictability. The “shadow” plotline, with its “special girl” trope, is so familiar to the viewer (especially one well-versed in young-adult fiction) that it ends up carrying all the weight of the show on its shoulder. I mean, it’s the main plot after all. It’s simple, but effective. The crow side-plot instead is action-packed, and while that respects generic conventions, it might have needed more space to develop. As for Nina and Matthias’ story, it suffered a similar fate: it’s a cool story, but if you don’t already know why you should care about it, then it’s confusing and a seemingly useless. I liked it only toward the end, when I recognised were we were at in the frame of the Six of Crows storyline.
In the end, I think the actors are what made this show. Pretty good actors, that interpreted likeable characters perfectly and just as the audience expected them. Jessie Mei Li’s Alina and Archie Renaux’s Mal were way better than their book version. Freddy Carter... it’s odd, from a purely visual perspective he’s not exactly the Kaz I imagined but also he is not not Kaz? Do I make sense?
And of course Milo MPV of the story. Who knew this story needed a Milo to work. I love it.
As for other aspects of the production, I already mentioned my confusion concerning the choice of British English accents for Ravkan characters, just use Standard American English guys, it’s a real thing, I swear. Photography: seemed pretty good. Music: it worked, but I wouldn’t say remarkable. Costumes: sometimes confused. I loved the First Army uniforms and the change of style during the Darkling flashback, but in many other points there’s some confusion as to the period of reference for the clothes. This isn’t a costume drama so it’s not fair to judge it too harshly, and upper-class clothes in particular are expensive so I can see why they looked all over the place. I hated Alina’s look when she ran away though, that was too modern.
All in all, Shadow and Bone wasn’t a total waste of time but it’s not gonna be my new hyper-fixation, you know? I devoured the last episodes though, those were really good. Thus I’m looking forward to a second season that will explore the events of the books I haven’t read, and I’m curious to see if and how they’ll bring the Six of Crows plot in.