Sometimes, it’s instructive to think about what it actually means for a television show to be successful. For House of the Dragon, for example, “success” meant brushing the cobwebs off an already-lucrative brand and putting Game of Thrones centre-stage again. For a Netflix show like The Sandman, it’s about drawing in new subscribers – meaning second, third, and even fourth series become less attractive to the streaming service than another new show (with a new potential fanbase), because of that emphasis on growth first and foremost. For a BBC One drama like Marriage, there’s a simpler metric: critical acclaim, strong viewing figures, popularity with audiences.
The Rings of Power – or, to give the series its proper Amazon-approved and Tolkien Estate-lawyer tested title, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – is in a slightly different spot. Obviously, the broad strokes of success remain in place. The fantasy prequel will, ideally, break out beyond the US streaming market; it’ll prompt inactive Prime Video users to return to the platform, and new ones to sign up for the first time. Hopefully, it’ll garner strong reviews, and be met with positive reception by the segment of the audience not sent into flurries of panic on seeing a Black dwarf.
But Amazon Prime is in a different business to streaming services like Netflix and Apple TV+, or a public broadcaster like the BBC. Fundamentally, it’s a retailer: the point of The Rings of Power is as much to get someone to buy the Peter Jackson DVDs, a collected edition of Tolkien works, and maybe some early Christmas shopping too as it is for someone to actually watch the show. (Hence, perhaps, why so many of its projects are adaptations, and why so many of its originals find themselves cancelled.) This first series cost $715 million alone, and it’s thought that if The Rings of Power continues to for its planned five seasons, that price tag will exceed a billion dollars – it’s the most expensive television show/Amazon Prime advert ever, but it doesn’t even represent a single per cent of the wider company’s 2021 revenue.
So, the conditions for economic success of The Rings of Power exist in their own context. (Both for the wider company and the production team: a second series is already underway, albeit admittedly set save money by filming in the UK rather than returning to New Zealand.) Instead, it’s looking primarily for a cultural success – both because it’s a vanity/passion project for Jeff Bezos, apparently an avowed Tolkien fan himself, and because Amazon Prime Video has yet to ever have one of its originals meaningfully break through into the zeitgeist.
That’s a tall order for any series, but especially so for one that’s inevitably going to be compared to an existing and already genuinely iconic trilogy of Middle Earth movies. (There’s another wrinkle in “what does success mean?” – The Rings of Power is trying to walk a difficult line, evoking the Peter Jackson movies for the audiences who love them, while still remaining legally and aesthetically distinct from them at the behest of the Tolkien estate who famously did not care for Jackson’s take.) What does it actually mean for The Rings of Power to stand on its own? Is that even desirable? Will it only ever appeal to the dedicated hardcore, or can it break out amongst a wider audience?
Perhaps unsurprisingly – it is, lest we forget, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – this isn’t a series that seems especially concerned with standing on its own. Eventually, it’s going to chart the events that lead to the forging of the One Ring, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that immediately: the first two episodes are quite leisurely paced chessboard episodes, concerned mainly with setting up the pieces and enjoying the time it takes to do so. This, clearly, was not a production where two hours of storytelling were thought of as being a quarter of the show, but a prologue to something that might span fifty hours – it’s deeply indulgent, with both the strengths and weaknesses that implies.
Sometimes, that gives it a certain sort of “… and?” quality – a nagging question, whispered by a voice just out of sight, wondering why exactly you should be watching this particular Tolkien adaptation. It counts on a familiarity and a fondness for Middle Earth, and often manages to make it seem beautiful: the series is full of grand, picturesque vistas, the money stolen from Amazon’s exploited workers letting the story play out as though on an epic, even mythic scale. It boasts strong performances, with Morfydd Clark an immediate standout (her Galadriel is the closest thing The Rings of Power has to a lead) and Robert Aramayo and Markella Kavanaugh emerging and impressing later.
Gradually, though, it introduces some cause for intrigue. There’s the slow imposition of Evil across the land, manifesting as putrid black bile and stylish Orc attacks, seemingly heralding the return of a long-thought-dead necromancer; there’s Daniel Weyman’s Stranger, who falls disoriented from the sky, an intriguingly blank slate in a series otherwise concerned with its familiarity. The two-episode premiere is likely a necessity, a way to at least gesture at what The Rings of Power will start to contribute on its own terms. Thankfully, there’s something in it worth watching, shining through it all – like the reflection of a precious ring, catching the light.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power begins with a double-episode premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 2 September (at 2am UK time, if you were thinking about staying up). New episodes will arrive weekly thereafter. I’ve seen two of an eventual eight episodes before writing this review.
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