Monday, June 20, 2011

Game of Thrones, Season 1 (Part 1 of 2)

There's something I can't figure out about Game of Thrones.  It's not what the relationship between Houses A, B, and C is.  It has nothing to do with whether Character X's motivation to betray Character Y had something to do with Character Z.  And it's not even the true parentage of that bastard, or the true allegiance of that eunuch.

It's why the show has any mainstream appeal at all.

I say that as a huge fan of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy book series that Game of Thrones is based on.  It is awesome.  It's probably the best fantasy fiction being written today.  But it also has plenty going against it, especially from the standpoint of being a successful TV show.

First, it's complicated.  Martin has described his books as having a "cast of thousands".  You don't have to keep close tabs on all those thousands to understand the story, and not all of them are around in the first book (i.e., the first season of the TV series).  But A Game of Thrones does have a dozen or so characters who could rightly be considered "main characters" and another dozen or so supporting characters with complex personalities and enough relevance to the story that you do need to keep track of them.

Similarly, while you don't need to have the membership of all eight or nine Great Houses committed to memory, you do need to understand the interrelationships among four of them to follow A Game of Thrones, and the series only becomes more demanding as it progresses.  And you don't need to be a scholar of all seven millennia of Westeros's history, but knowing the last fifty years or so provides some very necessary background.

Second, it's a "genre show" if ever there was one.  Find two people who are familiar with Battlestar Galactica.  Ask one of them "is BSG a drama?" and the answer will most likely be "yes."  Ask the other "what sort of show is BSG?" and the answer will most likely be "sci-fi."  If a TV show (or book series, movie, etc.) can be classified as fantasy (or sci-fi, or Western, etc.), it's overwhelmingly likely that it will be.

TV series like this are often referred to as "genre shows"; despite really only being dramas dressed up slightly differently, there's a propensity among critics to over-classify.  And it can be to the series' detriment.  Some people aren't "sci-fi people" or "don't do Westerns," but they're actually closing themselves off to good entertainment just because of the setting.  If anything, the stigma is worst with fantasy.

Finally, the story isn't told yet.  After a six-year wait following A Feast for Crows, we're finally getting the fifth book next month.  Nobody (save George RR Martin) has any idea how this is going to shake out, and at the current rate, we probably won't know this decade.  But even for fans of the TV show who haven't read the books, there are still plenty of stories untold.

Remember that time when Ned Stark told Beric Dondarrion to take a hundred dudes and track down Gregor Clegane?  How about when Barristan Selmy stormed out of the Red Keep after Cersei forced him into an early retirement?  Is Walder Frey serious about his demand for Robb to marry a Frey daughter, and will Robb keep the promise?  And who's this Stannis Baratheon character everyone keeps talking about?

Having read the books, I know the answers to all of those questions, and most of them turn out to be relatively important points.  But to someone who doesn't already know the answers, they seem like gaping plot holes.

Yet, despite all of those reasons why it shouldn't, Game of Thrones has succeeded, commercially, critically, and artistically. The one area where it's been less than stellar is its over-"HBO-ification".  Yes, Martin's world is a gritty one, with sex, violence, death, and vulgarity in every corner.  And no, I'm not the sort of prudish viewer who immediately dismisses a show with the first sex scene.  But there are scenes that advance the plot and/or the characters, and then there are HBO scenes.  One particular scene (with two random girls in Littlefinger's room) was actually hard to watch--I had to plug in earphones lest my roommates start asking questions.

Aside from the one scene per episode where you can't help but wonder "did we really need to see that?", Game of Thrones is a rousing success, following at least the first book perfectly.  In the next post, I'll talk more specifics about the series and the books: what matched, what didn't, and where either the books or the show were better.

Currently listening: "So What," Miles Davis

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