When The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power debuted at the same time as House of the Dragon, much noise was made about which show attracted more eyeballs. According to Nielsen, it was a conclusive victory for Tolkien, with The Rings of Power viewers watching the first two episodes for 1.25bn minutes, compared with House of the Dragon’s 741m.
But over the weeks, something strange has happened. House of the Dragon has sucked up the spotlight. It has attracted tweets, theories, memes, discussions, all on a rolling boil since the first episode. Meanwhile, if The Rings of Power has been seen anywhere, it was only in places paid for by Amazon. There are billboards and adverts and special Amazon packing tape adorned with the show’s logo. But, in terms of spontaneous, organic excitement, it has been a wilderness.
Why? Well, now that the first season is finally over, there is one clear answer. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power isn’t very good. It quite often isn’t anywhere near good. There are moments in almost every episode where I have found myself sniggering into my sleeve at how inept it is. And all these misgivings were massively underlined by the finale.
Friday’s final episode promised to answer the question at the heart of the first season: who is Sauron? Throughout the last few weeks, the show had been tying itself into all kinds of knots to get us to care about this, wheeling out a truckload of moustache-twirling figures with Sauron potential. Was it the evil orc everyone called Father? The man who fell from the sky? Was it the evil woman who looked like Kurtan from This Country? Or was it the man who spent the entire season hanging out with Galadriel and was obviously Sauron all along? Who knew?
There’s no point telling you the identity of Sauron. If you watched, you know who it is. If you didn’t watch, you don’t care. And if you like collecting decontextualised spoilers like strange little presents, then you will have Googled “Rings of Power who is Sauron?” one second after the episode finished airing, and been assailed by thousands of online publications screaming out his identity for clicks.
My point is this: good television can not function on “Who shot Phil Mitchell?” cliffhangers alone. Yes, that might be the destination, but the journey also has to be enjoyable as well. And, in terms of both plot and presentation, The Rings of Power simply hasn’t cut the mustard.
The biggest issue, the one that caused the bulk of the sniggering, was the acting. This is a show with a sprawling cast blasted across a number of locations. And there is no consistency whatsoever. People don’t seem to have been told what sort of show they are acting in. It’s bizarre.
At its best – largely thanks to the thrilling, urgent Morfydd Clark, who clearly felt the sting of every word she spoke – The Rings of Power came off as a pretty good prestige drama. But at its worst, hoo boy. There was some Toast of London-level acting on display, some sherry-breath regional theatre matinee performances stinking up the place. I don’t want to single out any individual actors – partly because it would be cruel, but mainly because I suspect it’s the fault of the directors rather than the actors. Even in Friday’s episode, some of the smaller parts appeared to have beamed in directly from an unaired 1983 episode of Doctor Who. A good director with an overview of the entire series would have steered moments like this into safer territory.
It didn’t end there. Bear McCreary’s ever-present score was syrupy and phoned in, as if he fell asleep on the “Fantasy” preset on his keyboard. The whole thing was lit as if it was an episode of Hollyoaks. Given the sheer amount of money thrown at the show, some of the visual effects were incredibly inept. Tonally, too, the drama didn’t know if it was meant to be for beginner-, intermediate- or expert-level Tolkien fans. As such, it felt like it was made for nobody.
A while ago, someone on the financial side of the television industry reminded me that Amazon isn’t a television company. It’s a mail order business that dabbles in TV to boost its cred. The Rings of Power seems to be a perfect case in point, as if Amazon dumped a billion dollars into it for the headlines, then ignored a lot of the details. The frustrating thing is that there is clearly so much potential here. I just don’t know if I have it in me to watch any more to see if it is ever realised.