The Witcher would excel as an episodic genre tv show, in the vein of Hercules or Xena. Instead, it’s shoehorned into the form of ‘prestige tv’, which sabotages the show’s ambition.
I’m a huge fan of The Witcher 3, so I was so happy when the Nextlix Witcher show was announced. It was the first time I anticipated a Netflix show.
Overall, I don’t think it’s a good show. However, I personally like it more than I would have if I had no exposure to The Witcher universe. But for my criticism of the show, I will avoid alluding to the games, because it’s not the adaptation of the content I have an issue with, but the form the content was adapted into.
My biggest criticism of the show is the format is in heavy conflict with the content. The media sabotages the message.
The Witcher seems like it was begging to be like the sword-and-sorcery / sword-and-sandal influenced shows, like Hercules and Xena. It wanted to be more episodic than the format allowed. It wanted to tell a contained story every episode. The show excelled when it stuck to the “Geralt takes monster contract, then learns something about society” formula.
This is the classic genre tv show format, pioneered by Star Trek, Twilight Zone etc. Our protagonists encounter a bizarre situation. They either fight the bizarre situation, or face some type of ethical quandary and make a choice, or something else. Our protagonists end up taking away some sort of allegorical lesson from this.
In other words: the monster-of-the-week format.
These shows have 23-45 minute episodes. They have 24 episode seasons.
The Witcher has all of this. Every episode has an element of the “monster of the week” format. This is likely a positive side-effect of the fact that the first two Witcher books are compilations of short stories in that universe.
But instead of having 45 max. minute episodes, it has hour long episodes. Instead of 24 episodes per season, it has eight.
This format (short season, long episodes) is a classic signifier of the “prestige” tv format. This format depends heavily on serialization – the opposite of what makes a traditional genre fiction show.
Undoubtedly, The Witcher was conceived when a Netflix executive said “damn, that Game of Thrones show was really popular and it’s over now. Find me another fantasy novel that we can make into our own Game of Thrones.”
And yet, the things in The Witcher that are most like Game of Thrones are the worst things about it.
A hallmark of Game of Thrones is multiple characters, or sets of characters, engaging with the same world at the same time. Sometimes their paths cross, but it’s functionally 6-12 short stories that overlap sometimes, told in bite-sized story chunks, spread across multiple tv seasons.
Another hallmark is that Game of Thrones could easily be strung together into one massively long movie, and you probably couldn’t notice when one episode began and when one ended.
Both of these things are present in The Witcher, as a consequence of its format, but they’re both deeply in conflict with what the show actually wants to be.
The Witcher has three main characters, but two of them only meet at the end of the last episode, and one of them never meets the third main character.
That works on Game of Thrones, but it doesn’t work on a more conventional, episodic genre tv.
Another thing that Game of Thrones does, that falls flat in The Witcher, is the superfluous use of dozens of characters and references to places and objects that exist in that world.
For the type of stories that The Witcher is telling, we don’t need to know town and dominion names if we will never go there. Besides that, the setting doesn’t play much role in the show. In Game of Thrones, people are moving to and fro to different locations in the world. In The Witcher, this happens off-screen: most episodes start with most characters arriving, or just arrived in a new location.
In short, The Witcher excels in all the ways that it’s not like Game of Thrones. The premise of the show depends on small-scale, localized conflicts, mostly existential or interpersonal conflicts. The Witcher universe includes broader, socio-political conflicts – but those aren’t the source of the narrative, they’re context for existential and interpersonal conflicts to play out.
The way I interpret most Witcher storylines is a replication of the story of Agamemnon, and Kierkegaard’s parable about Agamemnon (and stories like it). In the story, Agamemnon kills his daughter so that the Greeks could win the Trojan War. This makes Agamemnon a tragic hero, because he acted fully in line with ethical principles, but when people act in accordance to ethics, they will inevitably do the wrong thing.
Or, to use the rhetoric of the show: Agamemnon had to choose between the lesser of two evils, which is something that all people who live ethically must do.
The show is premised on Geralt attempting to refuse to make a choice (which Kierkegaard would characterize as living an “aesthetic” life rather than an “ethical” life). The conflict lies between Geralt wanting to live an aesthetic life – he wants to remain individualistic and myopic, humbly working for money, and yet feeling obligated to act ethically when the opportunity arises.
The show excels when it dwells in this space. And if the episodes were shorter, and the season longer, they could dwell more firmly in this space. Instead, the show that The Witcher wants to be is constantly contradicting the Game of Thrones knock-off that Netflix wants it to be.