Netflix appears to be happy with The Witcher. Despite mixed reviews, the show has a high rating from viewers and has been trending on social media. On top of high streaming numbers, that's how Netflix measures a show's success. They want not only lots of people watching, but as many people talking about it, as many publications writing about it, as possible. The show is looks like it's for viewers jonesing for Game of Thrones.
Many viewers are discovering the show on its own for the first time, though I hear fans of the games might be driving the high streaming numbers as well. Netflix has already greenlit a second season, which is just as well, since the first season is only a prologue to a much bigger story.
But is the first season any good?
My answer is "yes" in some parts and "so-so" in the rest.
I already watched and reviewed each of the eight episodes (you can read my review of season finale "Much More" here). I've played the games and read the books, so I could spot all the parts of the show that differed from them. I tried not to compare the show too much to the games and the books because the show has to stand on its own.
"The Witcher": Jump Between Three Timelines Was Annoying
The first season is a fairly faithful adaptation of most of the stories from the first short story collection The Last Wish and two key stories from the second book Sword of Destiny. Ciri's storyline is loosely adapted from the first novel Blood of Elves.
A lot of viewers complained that jumping between three timelines was too confusing. That certainly didn't do the show any favours. Since I knew the books and what was coming, I didn't feel confused, though I felt the awkward lurches in the pacing, especially in the early episodes.
I get why the writers did this, even if I don't agree with their decision to jump three timelines. The show probably would have done well adapting the stories from The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny as a "monster of the week" procedural. However, the procedural format seems to be the domain of commercial networks now. Premium cable and streaming channels are into serialized episodes with long arcs.
I also got the feeling that the writers wanted to engage a female audience early. Instead of just following Geralt and occasionally Jaskier on their buddy comedy misadventures, they wanted to introduce Ciri and Yennefer as early as possible to get the audience invested in them. TV shows have to be ensembles now rather than focusing on a single protagonist.
The Best Bits Followed the Books – That Says Something
To me, the show worked best when it adapted Geralt's stories from the books. The writers changed certain details to tie them to the long-term arcs, but the "monster case of the week" format of the stories works solidly. It's the time-jump between three different storylines that gives the show a weird pace and whiplash. Ciri's storyline feels a bit generic and stretched out, and her personality was never really established. She comes off as a bit "Sansa Stark on the run with superpowers" as she lurches from one place to the next while being chased by baddies.
The Problem with Yennefer
Yennefer's story is the most flawed, in my opinion. The books never went into detail with her backstory, other than hints that she was born a hunchback. She had a hard life as she became one of the most powerful and feared sorceresses on the Continent. I don't think we needed to see that much of it.
I thought there was too much telling and not enough showing in Yennefer's story. I also don't think we needed to see her whole progress and origin story. In the books and games, Yennefer is a weapons-grade mean girl, aloof and uncompromising and spiteful. That's what made her fun and intriguing. Anya Chalotra acts her heart out, but they didn't write the Yennefer we know from the books and the games. She comes off as a generic underdog antiheroine from cable TV rather than mysterious and fun. Maybe the scary, cool Yennefer is supposed to show up in season 2.
"The Witcher": Games Still Best TV Version of the Story
The best adaptation of the story remains the games, especially The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It replicates the atmosphere of the books and how the characters feel from the books. The writers of the games had obviously been living and breathing the books for years, and it shows. The show's first season feels like the writer's room is still feeling their way around the characters and trying to fit them into a TV show.
Wild Hunt is already the best version of all the characters, and the imperfect versions of the live action TV versions creates a sense of dissonance. Not Henry Cavill, though. He has Geralt down to a T. Joey Batey is also a delight as a Jaskier who acts like he wants to be the Robbie Williams of the Witcher world.
That said, if you like The Witcher books or games, of course you're going to watch it. You'll have to decide if you like it. It's telling that the show has driven sales of the game up again and players are also revisiting it.
Hopefully, Season 2 won't have annoying time-jumps as the real story begins. The heart of the novels is Geralt and Yennefer acting as surrogate parents to Ciri. Season one is about moving towards that goal.
Showrunner Lauren Hissrich said she has seven seasons of the show planned. Netflix' policy these days is to cancel a show after three seasons maximum to make way for new shows unless it's really popular. Let's hope Season 2 gets popular enough for Netflix to adapt the entire story.