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'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power' is a big budget journey back to Middle Earth

DAVID GURA, HOST:

So are you ready to go back to Middle Earth?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE 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.

GURA: Hobbits, elves, orcs. They're back. "The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power" debuts this week on Amazon Prime Video. It comes just after another fantasy series, the "Game Of Thrones" spinoff called "House Of The Dragon," premiered to more than 20 million viewers. That is a record series debut for HBO. "The Rings Of Power" is an expensive gambit for Amazon. It's reportedly the most expensive show ever made. Joining us now is our intrepid guide, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: (Laughter) You're making it sound like I'm walking through Middle Earth.

GURA: Barefoot.

DEGGANS: Of course. How else would you do it?

GURA: (Laughter) You have seen two episodes of the new Amazon series, I gather. What can you tell us about it?

DEGGANS: Well, I have to choose my words carefully because Amazon Prime Video has asked critics not to publish reviews of the show until Wednesday. So I can say that I've seen two episodes, and they are filled with the kind of special effects magic that fans of Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" movies are going to expect. It's set, of course, in the fictional world of Middle Earth, which is this medieval sort of land. We've got elves and hobbits and dwarves and wizards all alongside humans, of course. And it's all inspired by "Lord Of The Rings" author J.R.R. Tolkien's work, including the appendices to the "Lord Of The Rings" novel.

Now, the series is set at a time thousands of years before "The Lord Of The Rings" and "The Hobbit," so we're going to see a lot of what we call worldbuilding. Viewers are going to get introduced to new characters, new places, grand special effects, lots of makeup movie magic. And just like HBO's "House Of The Dragon," it's a prequel that's set long before many of the characters that fans might know from the original work - before they existed.

GURA: I mentioned this is a hugely expensive series. What does Amazon hope to achieve by spending so much money on a show?

DEGGANS: Well, this series has been under development for a long time, and it was cooked up back when the original shows on Amazon Prime Video were more quirky, and they were focused on more specialized, smaller groups of fans. Now, reportedly, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wanted the company to develop more original series that were geared towards a broader audience. Now, back in 2017, the company announced that it had bought the rights for "The Lord Of The Rings" TV production for $250 million, and that was before they'd hired a single actor or shot a single frame of film.

GURA: Wow.

DEGGANS: We are talking a lot of money here. And it's tough to know how Amazon is going to judge success because they don't generally tell the public how many people watch their original shows, but I think there's a sense that Amazon wants to create a show that boosts Amazon Prime sales, of course, gets people who are already members to watch their videos more but also gets the general public talking about their original shows. I mean, other streamers have these hits that start conversations out in the general public like "Stranger Things" on Netflix or "Ted Lasso" on Apple TV+ and "House Of The Dragon" on HBO. Now Amazon has a series which may also affect the zeitgeist in a similar way.

GURA: Looking at the zeitgeist, you've got "The Rings Of Power" and "House Of The Dragon." How do hobbits stack up against dragons, so to speak?

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Well, you know, what I can say is that both series are trying something that's really tough, which is trying to get fans to care about a new story with new characters. And the real test is going to be whether both shows can create these new characters that capture viewers' imagination the way they fell in love with characters from the original products.

Now, I know these are worlds that are heavily based on Europe's medieval period, so we have kings and knights and sword fights and quests, but it is odd to see two shows in the modern age that are still so centered on whiteness. I mean, both of them have characters at the center of the action with blond hair, blue eyes. Everybody's got British or Scottish or European accents. There are nonwhite characters in both shows, of course. In fact, there's a great character played by Ismael Cruz Cordova in "The Lord Of The Rings" series. He's a native of Puerto Rico, and he plays a key elf character. The narratives are still pretty white-centered, which doesn't necessarily have to be in a show that's set in a fantasy world.

Now, Amazon's series doesn't have big-name actors in it, which also may make it a little tougher to get attention, but I got a feeling that loads of fans are just going to show up for their love of the franchise and out of curiosity over the magnitude of this production. And then Amazon's challenge is going to be holding on to them.

GURA: Our guide, respecting the embargo as ever, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you very much.

DEGGANS: It's always a pleasure. Thanks a lot.

GURA: And we should note that Amazon is among NPR's sponsors and distributes certain NPR content. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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