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So long, and thanks for all the fish!
HBO has the unique ability to break the shackles of cable television and put out uninterrupted, well-produced content that isn’t privy to network/rating pressures or stringent guidelines (cough*tits*cough). Some of TV’s most iconic, ground-breaking, and breath-taking shows are a result of HBO’s hard work. Pioneers like Oz, Deadwood, The Sopranos, and The Wire made the network a must have. The current HBO lineup is pretty stacked, but have they really duplicated what made them unique and refreshing in the first place?
In a word, yes. the current line-up is the strongest it has been in years. I don’t want to take away from how genuinely good shows like Veep, Eastbound & Down, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, and Curb Your Enthusiasm are, but there is an elephant in the room, a monster that has taken the world by storm. The artfully played realism juxtaposed with the fantastical setting, supported by its well-written, expertly-portrayed characters all but give it away.
Of course the show I’m talking about is GIRLS. The consensus is unanimous: HBO’s GIRLS is the voice of our generation. Wait, what? Just joking. Workaholics is probably more accurate anyways.
Now while Lena Dunham has done a remarkable (even extraordinary) job of capturing the essence of the uncertainty, angst, and fear of ascending into adulthood in your early 20s, her work is still grabbing a pretty selective audience. The real star, Game of Thrones, seems to know no boundaries. From young to old, and fantasy buffs to reality TV lovers, everyone loves GoT (or “Thrones” as some of the kids are saying these days).
Thrones pulled down an extremely impressive 4.4 million viewers during its season 3 premiere, besting its own records and making it the most watched episode in series history. Comparatively, GIRLS hasn’t broken a million viewers on any episodes (the season 1 finale had 1 million flat). Even The Newsroom was hitting around 2 million through its run (2.3 at the season finale).
So why has Game of Thrones been able to nab so many viewers? Where does the universal appeal of the series truly lie?
The gratuitous, graphic sex and violence certainly have their appeal (SNL had a bit of a field day poking at the show). HBO has made a name for itself by showing some skin, and it can feel a bit forced at times. Then again, Thrones’s source material isn’t exactly PG. Its gratuitous nature might present a valid reason to its popularity, but why aren’t shows like Showtime’s Spartacus (peaking at 1.72 million viewers during the prequel’s finale) raking in Game of Thrones type numbers?
Thrones has a lot of substance beneath the veneer of blood and breasts. The undertaking of the series is massive, with so many plot lines, characters, and locales to deal with. Readers of the books and everyone else can be pleasantly surprised at the painstaking care that HBO has invested in recreating Westeros and its inhabitants. The books can be overwhelming with so many characters to keep track of, and it was often a trial to slog through some sections. I’ll admit it… especially when there is an overly long description. Generally, this might be a negative thing for a lot of people, but it often provided insight into the characters or the universe that are very difficult to convey on screen. Even for non-readers, the show’s detail is another way of immersing and inundating them in Westeros for one hour a week. The show has certainly taken some creative liberties that ultimately make things more convenient and accessible, and I can’t fault it for that.
It’s this mix of flash and substance that Game of Thrones has really nailed. It’s quite a perilous line to tread, and the show is able to strip out a lot of the fluff that pervades throughout the books without sacrificing the integrity of characters and the universe. Since George R.R. Martin is neck deep in the show, he can exercise his creative powers to the benefit of his fans. In fact, the episodes that Martin personally wrote are some of the strongest of the series, especially “Blackwater”. There are so many more elements to the battle that play out in the books, and it was looking pretty impossible to fit everything into one hour. Martin’s reworking and winnowing of the events really allowed for the episode to play out as a very sharply executed and tightly paced climax for season 2.
It also didn’t hurt that there were some inspired performances, especially by Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister).
The casting of the series has been phenomenal. From Sean Bean to Peter Dinklage (Martin’s first choice for Tyrion), each actor has been able to tap into the amount of detail and depth that has gone into the epic fantasy series. There has also been a great influx of new talent being drawn up to the spotlight (especially young talent, like Maisie Williams playing Arya Stark). Expect strong performances from newcomers this season, as the casting lineup includes Ciaran Hinds (and maybe a cameo or two from some “cold” and “snow” associated musical acts).
Let’s talk about setting. The difference between a real location and a studio backlot is something that ultimately translates to a better experience for the viewer. The setting of the series spans so many different climates, aesthetics, and weather conditions. The location scouts at HBO deemed it necessary to have the cast and crew sent to Ireland, Malta, Iceland, and Croatia. After watching a few interviews with the actors and having personally been to the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia (King’s Landing), I can see why it enhances the performance. The stellar production value that has become synonymous with huge movie blockbusters is now becoming a norm for premium television. Aside from the sets, the high level of quality for the costumes, props, and makeup weaves an impressive tapestry that can cause anyone to suspend their disbelief.
It’s difficult to translate epic fantasies to the screen, and Game of Thrones is doing the unthinkable by succeeding and bringing in millions of viewers. This current season is probably going to be the most difficult (and ambitious) yet. There is so much to like about the show. Action, political intrigue, some supernatural stuff, sex, gore, a few good jokes and puns here and there, knights, swords, and a killer soundtrack. What more do you need? Well developed story arcs and characters? Insanely high production value with fantastic set pieces and costumes? Peter Dinklage being a boss? It’s all there. The show has something for everyone, and they don’t half-ass it. They whole-ass it so everyone can appreciate it.
As for the actual premiere, the episode wasn’t lackluster by any means, and anyone expecting an action-packed opening should reevaluate what they saw last season. The new episode did a fantastic job of throwing the viewer back into the Game of Thrones universe by revisiting many of our favorite characters in the aftermath of season 2 (and curiously leaving out a few…). This is a much needed establishing shot to build a foundation for the rest of the season. There were a few real flashes of brilliance this episode, hinting at what is to come.
Minor spoilers from the Season 3 premiere follow.
Here are a few of my favorite moments from the premiere:
The opening credits: I probably enjoyed the fact that Winterfell was ruined and smoking during the opening credits a bit too much. It’s the little things that show the amount of care and detail put into the series.
Dragons: There was also a great moment when we first see the dragons. They have a fantastic VFX shot of the dragon dipping into the ocean and catching a fish, then throwing into the air and flash-frying it with fiery dragon breath. In a fluid second, they’ve captured just how elegant and brutal the dragons can become. The kicker? Dany says they aren’t growing fast enough.
The perennial favorite, Tyrion: My favorite moment of the episode was definitely the dialogue between Tyrion, arguably the most beloved character of the series, and Tywin, the cold and calculating father. Each of Tywin’s scathing remarks is more horrible than the last, only to be met with a wittier riposte from an increasingly defensive and despondent Tyrion. Ultimately Tyrion and his sardonic humor break under Tywin’s icy chill as his father undisputedly takes round 1 of the Worst Dad Olympics. Tywin: 1, Tyrion: 0. Expect more.
The third book had more twists and turns than any sane human should have to read, but I’m convinced they aren’t going to screw it all up here. Even if they do, I’m still going to watch it until the bitter end. On its worst day, it’s twice as good as most shows on TV. No matter what happens, things are going to get crazy this season. Remember that moment of frustration you felt in the first two seasons when the screen cuts to black and flashes to “Co-Producer: Greg Spence” at the end of an episode? I guarantee you are going to be screaming at your television until June.
Game of Thrones Season 3 airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on HBO, and is also available online on HBOGo.