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.