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TV review: HBO dusts off ‘His Dark Materials’ to bring it back as a captivating series

(Courtesy of HBO)

"Lyra’s Jordan"

Directed by Tom Hooper

Nov. 4

By Paige Hua

Nov. 4, 2019 10:23 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 5 at 11:15 a.m.

HBO is taking audiences on a journey north again, but this time it isn’t to Winterfell.

Instead, “His Dark Materials,” which premiered Monday night, takes viewers north to the aurora borealis. The production is HBO’s newest fantasy drama – the first since its lackluster final season of “Game of Thrones.” But despite daunting expectations to develop an equally extensive fan base, “His Dark Materials” is well on its way to filling the pop culture gap left by its predecessor.

[Related: Winter has come: UCLA community evaluates ‘Game of Thrones’ impact, explores what’s next]

The show, based off Philip Pullman’s book trilogy of the same name, begins its story in Oxford, England. And from the very first scene, the show immerses audiences in a whirlwind of mystery and suspense. James MacAvoy, starring as Lord Asriel, sets the tone as he crawls out of an airship and wades through waist-deep water to drop Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) off at Jordan College in the hands of its headmaster (Clarke Peters). From that moment on, the viewer’s journey with Lyra begins – and it’s nothing less than cinematically stunning.

From sweeping shots of Oxford to small, intimate scenes of Lyra running through Jordan College, every minute of the show is filled with vibrant colors and elaborate costumes that are as vital to the story as the script. No lines are necessary to draw a line in the sand between the Gyptians and Magisterium when the neutral and jewel-toned fabric of the former distinguishes them from the dark, formal uniforms of the latter in power.

However, what “His Dark Materials” does best technically is found within the nuance of its computer-generated imagery. With the show set in not only in fantastical worlds, but also around the relationship between humans and their animal familiars – or daemons – CGI finds itself in every corner of the series premiere. Lyra’s white ferret accompanies her in practically every scene just as a snow leopard accompanies Lord Asriel. This use of CGI adds another layer of depth to the storytelling as every animal detail, from the fur to their movements, is done perfectly.

Aside from its technical elements, the show’s emotional intrigue is all due to Keen and MacAvoy’s powerful performances as uncle and niece. While Lord Asriel is not too far removed from MacAvoy’s usual darker, brooding roles in “X-Men” or “Split,” the performance is just as captivating. He might be harboring a multitude of secrets from Lyra, but beneath the cold exterior, the concern Lord Asriel bears for his niece is palpable in every moment of their shared screen time. As Lord Asriel carries a sleeping Lyra in his arms to bed, rearranging her pillows and untying her laces, wonder and curiosity seizes the viewer. After all, they can only hope his icy demeanor falls long enough for him to show Lyra the love she clearly craves.

It’s these tender moments when the potential of “His Dark Materials” shines through – and Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn’t even made his debut appearance. But as audiences wait for even more star power to enter the series, the endearing performance of the show’s children will be sure to hold them over. With the show’s main mystery centered on the disappearance of these children, each of their scenes demands empathy, making their eventual absence devastating.

[Related: TV review: ‘Big Little Lies’ season 2 delivers underwhelming plot despite strong acting]

But what’s most impressive is that the children of the show are both innocent and multifaceted, capturing the very essence of youth. They are rebellious, honest and endearing – and audiences won’t have to worry about them being wise beyond their years. Lyra is an especially notable scene-stealer throughout the first episode as her character carries an immense emotional depth, and Keen plays her to a T. She is mischievous, yet brave, outsmarting her tutors and eavesdropping on private conversations at the risk of her own life.

With future episodes promising only more action, CGI, suspense and star power, “His Dark Materials” is well on its way to becoming the next pop culture hit. But only time will tell if the remainder of the season is as strong as the pilot. It would be no surprise if, like many television shows on air, HBO’s newest production falls flat by the second episode.

But should “His Dark Materials” continue on its current path, pairing detailed CGI with just-as-well-developed characters, there is also every possibility that “His Dark Materials” could be television’s next obsession.

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Paige Hua | Arts senior staff
Hua was the 2020-2021 Arts editor. She was previously the Theater | Film | Television Arts assistant editor.
Hua was the 2020-2021 Arts editor. She was previously the Theater | Film | Television Arts assistant editor.
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