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Amazon's 'Lord of the Rings' prequel series spends a lot of time setting the scene

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I know what I'm doing on Friday night. The new prequel series "The Lord Of The Rings: Rings Of Power" debuts with two episodes on Amazon Prime Video tomorrow. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the series meticulously recreates and expands the fantasy world of the franchise inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's classic novels. But Eric says it may not have created characters or a story worthy of the setting.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: There's a phenomenon that crops up in TV shows and films sometimes called table-setting. That's when a series takes time to really contextualize characters and situations before the story gets going so the audience understands the stakes at hand. And, boy, does "Rings Of Power" spend a lot of time in its first two episodes setting the table.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER")

MORFYDD CLARK: (As Galadriel) Nothing is evil in the beginning, when the world was so young, there had not yet been a sunrise. But even then, there was light.

DEGGANS: That's Morfydd Clark as Galadriel, an elf leader who was played by Cate Blanchett in Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" movies. Now, Amazon's series takes place thousands of years before events in Jackson's films, but elves age slower, allowing "Rings Of Power" to feature a younger version of Blanchett's character. The series uses Galadriel's story to ease viewers into its new universe. Her history, presented mostly in montages, could have covered half a season by itself - the elves' war against the dark lord Morgoth, who tried to snuff out the giant trees which bring light to their world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RINGS OF POWER")

CLARK: (As Galadriel) We thought our light would never dim. So when the great foe Morgoth destroyed the very light of our home, we resisted.

DEGGANS: OK, here's where the story gets complicated, because Morgoth isn't the main villain of "Rings Of Power." That honor falls to Sauron, an evil apprentice of Morgoth and the disembodied villain from the "Lord Of The Rings" movies who kills Galadriel's brother in Amazon's series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RINGS OF POWER")

CLARK: (As Galadriel) My brother gave his life hunting Sauron. His task is now mine.

DEGGANS: And that's just one of the stories teed up in the first couple of episodes in this series. It depicts a world where elves, dwarves, hobbits and men are mostly unaware that Sauron is quietly gathering his strength to conquer their world. And no group of characters may be more innocent in this story than the harfoots, a type of hobbit that often serves as comic relief with their own unique code.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RINGS OF POWER")

DYLAN SMITH: (As Largo Brandyfoot) One thing we can do better than any creature in all Middle Earth - we stay true to each other, with our hearts even bigger than our feet.

DEGGANS: Because of all the backstories and setup, it's hard to know how good "Rings Of Power" really is, especially from its first two episodes. Of course, there are eye-popping special effects and makeup. With Amazon ponying up a reported $100 million budget per season, there better be. But it's tough to know the significance of all the characters unless you do some online research before you even watch the show. I'm also increasingly uncomfortable with fantasy worlds that are so inspired by European medieval history that they feel incredibly white-centered, even when they throw in a few non-white characters to help diversify things. It's obvious "Rings Of Power" is Amazon's shot at a pop-culture-bending "Game Of Thrones"-sized hit. But without the kind of compelling characters that made Peter Jackson's film so memorable, you're stuck sitting at a well-appointed table with a pretty lackluster meal.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.