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By Ryan Mason · June 16, 2011
You wouldn’t know it if you only flip through the first ten channels in your cable guide or if you’ve been watching TNT at all lately with their incessant advertisements for Franklin & Bash, but there are hour-long TV shows now that don’t center around lawyers, doctors, and police officers. It’s true. Successful shows with strong followings, multiple seasons, plenty of prestigious awards, and stars parlaying that success into theatrical fame and fortune.
It wasn’t until HBO truly stepped up their game to hand us fare like OZ and The Sopranos, which took familiar enough material – prison and gangsters are about crime and we’re used to cops and robbers, so we’re comfortable enough – but spun them in original ways that we hadn’t seen before. Plus, they were on premium cable, which meant that no more bare ass, taboo crossing from NYPD Blue; they could give us the full monty and everything else that wouldn’t fly on network television. The big coup happened when basic cable took the cue and ran with HBO’s model, giving us shows like Rescue Me – which said just about every word in the swearing handbook except for the mother of them all – Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and most recently, The Walking Dead. Here are shows that truly break the mold of what a one-hour show could be, giving us firefighters, 1950s ad executives, meth dealers, and the zombie apocalypse.
So now it comes back to where it started to take the one-hour to the next frontier: HBO’s new hit, Game of Thrones. It’s hard to imagine this show working without its predecessor, True Blood, having become such a giant hit. Both are genre shows, but arguably True Blood had a better shot at success since vampires and werewolves and their kin are all the rage these days. Game of Thrones, though, delves deeper into the realm of fantasy more akin to The Lord of the Rings than Twilight. And yet, here it is, a huge critical and commercial hit proving once again that there’s a healthy appetite for untraditional hour-long TV shows.
It helps that it’s an extremely well made show. All aspects – production value, acting, directing, writing, set design, you name it – have a theatrical film quality rarely seen in a weekly program. (It doesn’t hurt that the first season had a reported budget of nearly $60 million.) There’s no way I can do the plot justice in this review, a storyline that spans thousands and thousands of pages from the source material novels written by George R.R. Martin. But it all boils down to a bunch of different groups of people wanting things badly, and they’re having serious trouble getting them. Yes, it’s that simple. Isn’t it always? Really, the genre fades into the background once you have vibrant, three-dimensional characters with wants that conflict with their needs that, in turn, conflict with someone else’s wants and needs. And when you have several families, intertwined through generations of vying for the Iron Throne, all paying respect to the current king while positioning for their own power, naturally you’re going to have a fair share of wants and needs that cause friction – to say the least – between them all. Toss in the exploration of carnal knowledge that hasn’t yet been introduced in your sci-fi/fantasy fare up to this point, and here we have the culmination of the current evolution of modern television drama.
The brilliance of the show is that it caters to both the devoted fans of the books by following closely the first novel in the series while also remaining enticing to the average viewer by not jumping off the deep end immediately into the fantastical aspect of the series. Sure, the opening scene involves some blue-eyed beasties, but that gives way to people with whom we can easily relate, people who struggle with similar problems as our own: work getting in the way of relationships, being physically different from our peers, having a different father than our siblings, constantly failing to make our fathers’ proud. Dramatically, this apple hasn’t fallen too far from Freud’s tree, so of course we love it. The medieval Europe-esque setting notwithstanding, these are characters with whom we understand and empathize. And given the scope of the series – there are quite a few characters here with not such easy names to pronounce or remember, from many different families and parts of the world – that it’s so easy to jump right in is a testament to the writing and the acting in particular. Were these actors not so fully involved in their characters, the whole show might not be nearly as successful or accessible.
It’s amazing that it took so long for television to take us places outside of the usual professions and for audiences to gravitate toward those new worlds. Equally impressive is that HBO has constantly brought such high-quality, groundbreaking content. Granted, they’ve leaned toward adapting other material recently – Thrones and Blood are both based on books – which falls in line with the current business model of most of the movie studios lately, but these properties weren’t exactly household names before they hit the small-screen, meaning there was still some serious risk involved – especially when the pilot cost nearly $10 million. What makes Game of Thrones work is that the characters are real. They’re fully realized people with histories, pasts, backgrounds that all play into why they are who they are and why they do what they do now. No matter in what realm you place those types of characters, audiences will gravitate toward them. Even if that realm happens to be medieval Europe.