(Warning: There are some spoilers about Game of Thrones Season/Book One below).
Game of Thrones is changing the way the fantasy genre is depicted on TV.
As we get ready for season two of Game of Thrones, I’ve been thinking about the success of the show (and books) in the past year. During my day job, it’s become part of my coworkers’ pop culture language (and these are not genre people—they’re TV people). My boss hired an assistant recently. The day he started, the assistant came up to me a bit nervously and said the boss ‘told me I was his new Hand of the King and I should watch Game of Thrones to find out what that means.’ He watched the whole TV show over the following weekend.
We’ve seen genre shows go mainstream before on TV, but this is the first fantasy show I’ve seen get this big. Here’s a list of five aspects of Game of Thrones that are changing audience expectations for fantasy on television.
One of the main critiques of the fantasy genre as it’s been filmed is that it avoids and represses issues of human sexuality. Of course, this isn’t true of all fantasy, but I feel that Game of Thrones is the first mainstream fantasy TV franchise where the sexuality of the characters is not only on display but is essential to understanding both the characters and the plot. While George R. R. Martin introduced this in the books, the showrunners ran with it. I’m not saying the way the show handles sexuality is progressive or brilliant, but it doesn’t leave it to our imagination the way so many other televised fantasy narratives do.
2. Evil vs. Power:
Fantasy is also frequently critiqued for relying too heavily on the tired good vs. evil paradigm. While I think that is unfair, there’s no doubt that a good deal of series have wholly good and wholly evil characters. The relative ‘goodness’ of the characters is clearly on some kind of moral continuum. No such continuum exists in Game of Thrones. There’s no white, dark, or gray. There is power. I’ve never seen issues of good and evil so unnecessary to interpreting events in fantasy. Even characters who throw little boys out of towers have redeeming qualities.
3. A Desire for Dragons:
For a great many of my non-fantasy reading/watching friends, a film with a bunch of CG dragons in it is the touch of death. Asking them to see such a movie was like asking them to spend their Friday night playing D&D. They wouldn’t do it. Why? Because the inclusion of dragons in a major fantasy story can (but doesn’t always) indicate a certain subgenre of fantasy story that people assume will be cartoonish and nerdy. Game of Thrones turns this on its head by withholding the dragons.
The realism of the rest of the show makes us first wonder if the whole ‘dragon blood’ thing of Viserys is just a metaphor. But the build up to Danaerys’s dragon birthing is so well done that when she emerges from the flame with her three dragons it’s a moment of revelation. My dragon-hating friends went wild for it. It was unexpected and game-changing. If the show started with too many dragons, such people would have avoided it, but the subtlety of the build up made them want dragons. It’s a neat way of making a fantasy trope not seem hoakey and cliché.
4. The Non-Problem of Child Actors:
Many genre fans get nervous when a series adds a few kids to the story. Child characters can be done well, but child actors can easily ruin a filmed narrative. Jake Lloyd, anyone? Any kind of youngster in a fantasy film in particular can turn the story into something for children (rather then something that realistically features children). More than anyone, Arya Stark obliterates that stigma. The Stark children show that (1) children can have compelling stories in the midst of epic fantasy and (2) child actors, when handled well, can bring incredible talent to the table.
5. Extreme Continuity:
Most genre shows on TV will inevitably be forced to produce ‘stand alone’ episodes in order to attract a wider audience. Game of Thrones throws that requirement out the window like the nosy little boy that it is. The first season follows the first book. If you don’t follow it from the first few episodes, you will miss important things. From all indications, the second series will continue in the same vein.
I’m hoping that HBO maintains the integrity of this plan. If other studios see the show as profitable, there can be a renaissance of televised fantasy series that do it right. So many of our favorites should be done this way. Not with movie adaptations that cram a thousand pages into two hours, but with the subtlety and finesse that you can (oddly enough) only find on really good TV these days.
Agree? Disagree? Did another show I’m missing get here first? Discuss below.