HBO's His Dark Materials Gets a Promising Start Building a Complex World

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Hot on the heels of Watchmen, HBO's next genre series debuts tonight.

His Dark Materials is the highly ambitious HBO series based on the series of books by Philip Pullman's fantasy novels.

The series plucks you up and puts you down in a world that seems somewhat familiar but it vastly different than our own.

His Dark Materials Poster

With a talented, star-studded cast and eye-catching special effects, series creator Jack Thorne goes to great lengths to ensure His Dark Materials appeals to viewers both familiar with the world created by Philip Pullman and those new to Pullman's work.

It's not the first time Pullman's imaginative world has been created for the screen.

Dafne Keen on His Dark Materials

In 2007, Chris Weitz wrote and directed The Golden Compass starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig based on the same novels.

It wasn't well received, and fans have wished for Pullman's beloved work to get another shot.

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With only four episodes to critics, it's hard to know for sure if the series will make it for the long haul, but it gets an auspicious start.

Full disclosure -- I have not read the books, so I cannot discern how faithful it is to the original material.

Lyra and Pan on His Dark Materials

What I can do is assure you that this production is mysterious, highly engaging, and incredibly beautiful to watch.

For fans of Pullman's trilogy, some of what gets covered during the early episodes might feel repetitive.

But even after some exposition-filled installments trying to offer explanation for the complex world Pullman created, there is still a lot I don't understand.

I don't think I'm incredibly thick-headed but that the world is so well-imagined that to jump in without backstory takes some getting used to.

Ruth Wilson on His Dark Materials

But emotions tingle watching the fascinating world of Pullman's imagination come to life, and if the first four episodes are any indication, there is a lot of room for the series to grow and progress.

The downside is that as a BBC One co-production the first season is only eight episodes, so I've seen a full half, and it feels like things are just getting started.

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A second season was commissioned long ago, and that could have something to do with the slow rollout.

The first season is adapted from the novel Northern Lights and follows a young girl named Lyra (Dafne Keen).

James McAvoy from His Dark Materials

Having grown up in at a college in Oxford after her globe-trotting adventurous uncle (James McAvoy) drops her off for her protection from unknown sources, she is drawn away from all she knows when her best friend, Roger, mysteriously goes missing.

Lyra soon discovers that nothing she knew to be true was, and she embarks on a journey at the urging of a confident woman named Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) who arrives at Jordan College when it's most convenient for Lyra to take the first steps of her odyssey.

His Dark Materials takes place in an alternate world very similar to ours but also very different. The main action begins in and around Oxford, England, so to American viewers, it's going to feel somewhat foreign no matter what.

But there is, of course, more to it than that. An air of steampunk mixed with art-deco gives the series a distinctly vintage feel.

The Golden Monkey on His Dark Materials

The costumes and sets beautifully build upon that sense, and it's heightened with the daemons humans in this other world possess.

Daemons are the "external physical manifestation" someone's inner self. Daemons take the appearance of animals, and when in their infancy, they can change appearance until they ultimately find the one that works best for them.

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Their inclusion is utterly delightful and reinforces that the world Pullman created is quite different from our own.

The story is so complex that even attempting do brush through the highlights in this review is impossible.

Lin Manuel Miranda on His Dark Materials

Making it even more difficult is that each branch of the story is intricately tied to the other. Lyra's childhood and her special talents with the truth-telling alethiometer are tied not only to her uncle's search for information on "Dust," a substance that is so mysterious that I'm still not certain of its origin, purpose, or impact.

Mrs. Coulter, although she seemingly cares a great deal for Lyra, is connected in some way to the Gobblers, who are responsible for the taking of children, including Lyra's friend, Roger.

Little by little, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together, but I fear that much will still be unclear for the casual viewer at the end of eight hours even while fans of the book might feel overcome with repetition waiting to get the show on the road.

Seeing a work you hold dear come to life can be a double-edged sword. Whether His Dark Materials, which tries valiantly to appeal to two different groups, can effectively navigate the rough waters to do it will be the true test.

An Armored Bear on His Dark Materials

With the recent success of Chernobyl on Monday nights, it makes sense that HBO is using the same tactic to lure viewers on a less-TV intensive night.

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Sometimes it's harder to stand out on Sunday nights with so much other programming demanding viewers' attention. It will be very interesting watching the progress of His Dark Materials and getting initial reactions later in the week.

Do you plan on watching this ambitious new HBO series? Let us know in the comments below.


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Editor Rating: 3.75 / 5.0
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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