The best verdict on Game of Thrones came from one of its guest stars, Ian McShane. With the nonchalance of an actor who spent the ’80s making rent by playing a semimystical antiques dealer in a British teatime drama, McShane declared that everyone needed to calm down about George R. R. Martin’s epic saga. It was, after all, “only tits and dragons.”
The reaction from the HBO program’s more hard-core fans was predictable outrage. How dare McShane point out the innate ridiculousness of a show where everyone had names like Lord Eagleclaw of Thrustgarden and Radrik the Arse-shaver? (These are not real Game of Thrones names. However, HBO, they are available to license for a small fee.) He was making a mockery of the artistic integrity of all those scenes thoughtfully set in brothels as the characters talked about ... dragons.
By contrast, Netflix’s new series The Witcher isn’t “only tits and dragons.” It’s all about the tits and dragons. Until I saw it, I hadn’t realized how debilitating it can be for a program to be ashamed of itself. An episode of Game of Thrones often looked like everyone involved was thinking: I went to drama school so I could make profound meditations on the human condition, yet here I am in the snow, with my leg cut off, while some naked priestess spouts gibberish. The Witcher shares the Game of Thrones attitude toward gore (plentiful) and nudity (gratuitous), but its tone could not be more different. It knows it is ridiculous, and it simply doesn’t care.
The Witcher started out as stories by the Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski. But after selling the rights to TV and game developers, Sapkowski handed over creative control, too: He once told Eurogamer he was simply not interested in video games as a narrative medium. The three game spin-offs were wildly popular, with the most recent, 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, selling 20 million copies. Netflix’s television version is similarly successful, getting a commission for a second season before it even aired. Notably, it has scored far better with audiences than it has with critics: Rotten Tomatoes records a critical approval rating of 59 percent, while it reached 93 percent among viewers.
The hero of the series is a gray-haired, battle-scarred beefcake called Geralt of Rivia. He is, as you might have guessed, a Witcher. These are mutants, turned into genetically enhanced monster hunters through a cruel training program that leaves most candidates dead and even the successful ones sterile. The medieval society in which they live needs Witchers, but doesn’t like them. They are valuable outcasts, wandering the various thinly sketched kingdoms in search of quests: Kill a beast, break a curse, find some treasure. And they are dwindling in number; their training ground was destroyed, so no new Witchers can be created. This world also contains elves, knights, witches, weird goatlike creatures with boggly eyes, and shedloads of ghouls. (In the game, their abundance is useful because they are pretty weak and therefore great for leveling up. You just run into them with your weapon drawn and mash the X button repeatedly.)
The fact that Geralt does something broadly similar when he encounters a ghoul nest in the TV version underlines one of the main reasons for its appeal. Many of its viewers will have played the games, and there is endless fun to be had in comparing the well-worn tropes of a screen drama with those of a video game. “Classic escort mission,” I muttered as Geralt had to defend his useless companion on a long slog up a mountain. “Drink a potion,” we bellowed when he sustained a minor injury. When playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, my other half—in a reflection of the fluid gender roles in our household—showed little interest in attacking anyone with a magical sword. Instead, he ambled round collecting rare cards from innkeepers, travelers, and bandits for a baffling mini-game called Gwent. Accordingly, he spent the first two episodes of the television series shouting at the end of each onscreen conversation: “ALSO, DO YOU HAVE ANY GWENT CARDS?” Most pleasingly, the TV version knows that Geralt’s horse, Roach, is the quiet star of the narrative, and remorselessly builds his part. Next season, I want to see him inexplicably on a roof, or senselessly twirling on the spot, for the full game-glitch experience.
The key to the success of both the video game and the television series is that Geralt of Rivia appears to take everything in his world extremely seriously, but no one else does. As Geralt, the Superman actor Henry Cavill communicates largely through monosyllabic grunts (and his penis—the man is sterile, but still virile). But everyone else plays it for bathos. An irritating bard—called Dandelion in the game, but Jaskier in the books and television series—writes terrible rhyming songs about Geralt’s exploits, and can’t be taken anywhere without wandering into the pointy end of a sword or pointy-end-first into someone important’s wife. Geralt’s great love, Yennefer of Vengerberg, openly mocks him for his lack of small talk. The overall effect is of Christian Bale’s Batman being dropped into the world of George Clooney’s Batman. Eventually, you begin to suspect that Geralt is quietly amused by the absurdity around him. He is the straight man of this whole weird society.
All that makes The Witcher enjoyable. It comes free of the cultural baggage that afflicts so many fantasy stories, which strive so hard to be serious that they overshoot wildly, ending up in pure camp. The Witcher knows full well that it’s camp, and that’s okay. A series where the main characters dress like chucking-out time at a Berlin fetish club is never going to convince you it’s a gritty epic by Martin Scorsese. But who cares?
That said, the cheerful self-awareness of The Witcher should not be confused with artlessness. It might be silly, but it’s not dumb. Notably, there isn’t much tacky Ye Olde English dialogue. Horses are horses, not “trusty steeds.” No one goes “yonder.” The television series demands that the viewer quickly learn about a blizzard of characters, place-names, and odd quirks (such as the Law of Surprise, which drives two major plot points). It also takes place over three time frames. Characters who are dead in one episode turn up in the next, cheerfully quaffing, wenching, or otherwise being very much not dead. Early on, the time jumps were so confusing that, like several other people I know, I turned to an internet episode recap to orient myself.
I suspect those timelines are partly to blame for the gulf between the critical and audience reception of the show—to video-game players, it’s second nature to turn to the internet when you get stuck. Why won’t this door open? Where is the sacred seal? How can I kill this boggle-eyed goat thing? Netflix’s version of The Witcher simply ports this approach to television. It’s the first time I’ve thought about a drama series needing a walkthrough.
In its own way, then, The Witcher is groundbreaking. Critics have wondered for decades now why games make such bad source material for drama. (Remember Alicia Vikander in the recent Tomb Raider? Michael Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed? Rihanna in Battleship? No? Don’t worry, no one else does either.) The Witcher bucks that trend, not just because it ultimately derives from books, but because it embraces, rather than rejects, what people love about video games. It is messy, and absurd, but also—it is fun.