Into the absence left by “Game of Thrones” strides “The Witcher,” perhaps the most credible of several recent attempts to capture its predecessor’s robust claim on audience affections. Like “Thrones,” “The Witcher” is based on an existing series of novels (by Andrzej Sapkowski, whose work has also been adapted into a video-game universe); “The Witcher” also boasts richly expensive visuals and an expansive-seeming world, at least in its first five hours.
What it lacks, though, is tonal consistency. This is a show with moments of drama and of gruesome violence cut through with a glancing humor that too often feels tossed-off and out-of-place in the world the show has created. The show’s dramatic sensibility is intense and indulgent, crafting action sequences whose length bulks out episodes past hourlong running times. Its comic sensibility is puerile and a bit sarcastic. Indeed, Henry Cavill’s “Witcher,” a hunter of supernatural beings, and his frequent scene partner, Joey Batey’s jester and bard Jaskier, can feel like a TV pairing less serendipitously unlikely than discordant — a regular Jon Snow and Butt-Head.
Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia is among a dying breed of witchers, and he faces down his situation with a sort of mournful, cynical gravity cut through with bitter wit. The actor, known for his work as Superman in DC Comics films, is perhaps not built to be a Deadpool-style one-liner machine, and the pitched-down, gravelly affect he adds to his voice makes witticisms drag. I don’t believe someone this self-serious would claim to have had his “ass kicked by a ragged band of elves.” (By contrast, he somehow manages to sell Geralt’s moroseness of being truly alone in his wisdom.) Jaskier’s nattering insertions, asking Gerald in one fraught instance if he’s “perhaps short of a marble,” have the shape of jokes but need either punch-up or to be minimized to allow an overstuffed story room to breathe.
For it’s not just Geralt and Jaskier demanding our attention. This universe feels crowded, often in good ways — we’ll meet some new doctor or local potentate who could, perhaps, anchor a whole episode, and see tantalizingly just enough of them. But the main cast also includes Anya Chalotra as the sorceress Yennefer and Freya Allan as a princess coming into her power; those two occupy not just subplots but entire wings’ worth of story. That leaves “Witcher” episodes both overlong and centerless. There’s not quite enough fully developed characters to make this feel like a big ensemble show like “Thrones,” and so we crave a single center of gravity. The decentralized aspect of “The Witcher,” instead, emphasizes certain faults, like how Cavill doesn’t quite embody the Han Solo aspect of his roguish-hero role enough to hold the screen fully.
It also raises the fundamental question of who the show is for. As a “Witcher” watcher but not a reader, I felt the universe at times both overly broad (in its resistance of the single hero) and a bit narrow. Unlike “Thrones,” it resists allegorical or metaphorical readings, at least at first, and is firmly about what it’s about — magic and myth. That itself is less a flaw than simply design, but it does suggest that the appeal of this series may be limited to those already under its spell.