If you want to get really depressed about the future of television, consider this: over Christmas, The Witcher was Netflix’s highest-rated original series on IMDb, beating everything from Black Mirror to Stranger Things and The Crown.
The reason you should be depressed is that The Witcher’s popularity may send a dangerous signal to screen producers: don’t worry about the script or the acting, just chuck in lots of monsters, ultra closeups of swords cleaving heads, arrows going into people’s eyes and girls in body-hugging leather fantasy outfits, like a Dark Ages version of Hooters. Base it on a popular video game and the massed ranks of fanboy gamers will take care of the rest.
As a huge Game of Thrones fan, I’m certainly not averse to most of the above ingredients. But the genius of Thrones was that it was Shakespearean epic masquerading as sword-and-sorcery porn. Inspired at least partly by the Wars of the Roses, it was an endlessly involving, intricately plotted drama about the dynastic power struggles between sundry warring great houses. Plus some great tits, fantastic dragons, bravura invective and the appurtenance without which no medieval drama is complete: a debauched dwarf.
But The Witcher — derived from some fantasy novels by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski — largely dispenses with narrative arc. Instead, its title character, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), wanders through a fairytale landscape, dutifully killing his Monster of the Week, quaffing flagons of ale in various unwelcoming hostelries, bedding the odd maiden and reaching the final episode with a wearied grunt as if to say, ‘Was that enough to get a second season commissioned?’
I watched The Witcher with my erudite, disgustingly well-read and film-literate son, expecting him to be appalled. Not a bit of it. ‘You’re missing the point, Dad,’ he said, glued to the screen, watching episodes back to back and apparently loving every moment. ‘It’s not supposed to be great art. It’s about recreating the aesthetic of video game “cut scenes”. You’ve got to enjoy it for what it is.’
‘Cut scenes’ are the unconvincing, badly acted (or animated) film interludes you get between gameplay on video games. Older and more discriminating viewers may recall the preludes and interludes by which the ‘plot’ was advanced in upmarket porn. I always skip the cut scenes, because why sit through third-rate drama when you could be wasting jihadis with your Barrett sniper rifle? Clearly, though, there is a mass market out there which thinks this stuff is great.
So perhaps we need to bear this in mind when assessing Cavill’s profoundly deep-voiced, shallowly wooden performance. It’s not his job to have an inner life; rather, his sole function is to wander around flexing his beefcake muscles like Conan the Barbarian in a silver wig, killing things regularly while looking moody and regretful and unappreciated because witchers are mutant pariahs.
The same rules apply, I suppose, to the truly horrendous script. ‘What’s goin’ on, Geralt. Talk to me,’ says one of the annoying, japesome incidental characters, a mugging idiot called Jaskier. ‘Oh we are so having this conversation,’ he goes on, with the kind of intonation you might associate with millennials talking over craft beer and kimchi with quinoa. But again, that’s his job. He’s a dick because he’s meant to be a dick. And because millennials and Gen Zers will find him relatable, probably. Joey Batey, who studied modern and medieval languages at Cambridge and has acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company, contacts his inner dick and plays Jaskier with complete plausibility.
One writer has provocatively suggested that The Witcher is actually better than Game of Thrones because it has no pretensions. That’s just silly. But I’m perfectly prepared to concede that, watched in the right spirit with your critical functions all switched off, it makes for some perfectly pleasant, sobad-it’s-good, mindless tits-and-dragons escapism. Let’s just pray this crime against taste doesn’t spawn too many imitators.
‘Strong bloody violence, gore, sex, nudity, language,’ it warns promisingly at the beginning, before delivering on all of these. The fight sequences are more than satisfying and the fantasy locations, mostly shot in eastern Europe or the Canary Islands, look properly video-gamey. The girls are hot, even if they’re a bit too martially proficient for my tastes: one of the curses of this awful, post-#MeToo world is that damsels aren’t allowed to be distressed and weak anymore.
Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, The Witcher’s showrunner, is right to ignore the generally sniffy critics and deserves to congratulate herself on a job well done. I particularly admire how she overrode politically correct demands to change the racial identity of Princess Ciri. Though a casting call allegedly went out for a black or minority ethnic actress, the role eventually went — much to the relief of the fans — to Freya Allan, a white blonde.
This article is in The Spectator’s February 2020 US edition.