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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Witcher is a series based on the book series and popular video games of the same name. As in the game, the action is set in a magical world in which "mutant" characters called Witchers are able to slay monsters. The monster battles are righteously scary, with giant creatures equipped with scary faces, claws, unearthly long arms, and the like; when main Witcher Geralt (Man of Steel's Henry Cavill) fights them, there's dark blood, scary music, hacked off limbs, and visuals of the dead bodies of monsters. There's even more gore in the human battles, with soldiers fighting on the battleground and grievous injuries: stabbings, slashings, decapitations, throats are slit, a man's head is halved with an axe with bright-red spouting blood and gore. Sexual violence is referred to, but not seen on-screen. Some characters have otherworldly powers and can cause magical destruction, but the show's sympathies clearly lie with characters who are downtrodden and despised such as Witchers and Elves. Romance plays a part in some storylines and sexual images are frequent: characters have sex that includes nudity, come upon an orgy at a party, and non-sexual nudity (breasts and buttocks) occurs in a magical illusion. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "son of a bitch," "damn," and "hell." Characters drink beer in bars but don't get drunk; potions play a part in the story, used for suicide and abortion, among other purposes. Female characters have strong roles and some members of the cast are people of color; themes of courage, teamwork, and perseverance are illustrated in magical quests aimed at righting wrongs.
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What's the story?
Based on the game series of the same name (but relating a story not told in any of the game's versions) which was itself based on a series of books, THE WITCHER revolves around a magical world in which witchers -- genetically enhanced humans -- have special monster-slaying powers. They were once a common sight, but now Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) is one of the last of his kind, despised by the villagers of the towns he travels through on monster-killing missions. His only wish is to endure and survive as simply as possible, but when an unreliable magician Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen) lures him to his lair to enlist his help in a scheme to wipe out a possibly cursed generation of girls born after an unusual eclipse, he runs afoul of forces both magical and political just as an Elf revolution is brewing. Meanwhile, Ciri (Freya Allan), a deposed princess with mysterious powers, is on the run after her kingdom was invaded by soldiers who seem bent on capturing her, and downtrodden teen Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) painfully learns the ways of magic from mysterious sorceress Tissia (MyAnna Buring).
Is it any good?
With its medieval magical vibe and complex fantastical storytelling, this arresting drama reads like a Game of Thrones knockoff, but darned if it doesn't actually cast a spell. In a genre that often comes off as thunderingly self-important (is there a weapon or person or geographic location without a vainglorious three-word name in the Lord of the Rings trilogy?), The Witcher's greatest bit of daring is to treat its epic storytelling with a big dash of irony. The puffery-puncturing vibe arrives early, as Henry Cavill's square-jawed smirks make it clear that both actor and character recognize and relish the ridiculousness of monsters and long velvet cloaks and lone swordsmen doomed to roam from town to town on grim missions. But things really kick into gear in the second episode, when Joey Batey shows up as the ebullient bard Jaskier, more or less the comic-relief Donkey to Geralt's Shrek.
What a wonderful character Jaskier is: swishy, mouthy, and relentlessly roughhousing, he joyfully undercuts the solemnity of The Witcher's battles and political drama, often by economically summing up what's taken place in dialogue or song. In an early scene, just after delivering a bit of grievous Elf history, he says "There I go again, just delivering exposition." Ha! It's funny because it's true. Speaking of said Elves, their part of the story gives welcome depth: humans pushed them off their ancestral lands and now they fight relentlessly to keep the tattered remnants of their once-mighty tribe together -- and if that puts viewers in mind of Native people in North America, well, that's no doubt part of the message in a drama which is both entertainingly easy to watch and satisfyingly aligned with the underdogs of its world.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why dramas with elements of magic and (fictional) history seem to be having a bit of a moment. What others can you name? What show do you think started the trend? What about this particular genre seems particularly suited to telling stories modern viewers enjoy watching?
One common criticism of "sword and sorcery" type narratives is that they center the experience of male characters, with female characters given short shrift. Is that the case in The Witcher? Do female characters have meaty storylines with agency or are they cast in supportive roles? Given that game culture tends to skew male (but that games like The Witcher have a larger female audience), how surprising is it that this series has a male main character but also strong female characters?
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