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HBO's 'Game of Thrones': Hard to Follow, But Not to Watch
April 16, 2011  | By David Bianculli  | 2 comments

HBO's new Game of Thrones series, which premieres Sunday night at 9 ET, is a TV fantasy epic with grand ambitions -- more mature than Syfy's Merlin or Starz's Camelot, less cartoonish and video-game violent than Starz's Spartacus, and telling a more complicated story, with a more sprawling cast of characters, than anything this side of Middle Earth. But even WITH a scorecard, which HBO provided me, it's confusing at times, and only occasionally satisfying...

Based on the ongoing A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones is, or at least aims to be, a sort of medieval cross between Survivor and Deadwood. It's about power plays and expedient alliances, unchecked egos and ambitions, rival tribes with clashing values and goals, and an uneasy combination of established rules and violent lawlessness.


It all takes place in a land called Westeros -- only one letter off, perhaps fittingly, from the wild frontiers of "Westerns" -- which is divided into seven kingdoms. For the inhabitants of any of them, danger of one sort or another lurks in every direction of the compass, and over the entire land looms the threat of a sudden and lengthy change in the weather. When winter arrives, it's brutal, and can stay for years.

Thanks to my HBO-provided scorecard, I can name, and even spell, the various clans fighting for control of the Iron Throne. But I won't -- except to single out the Targaryens, whose white-haired princess Daenerys (played by Emilia Clarke, at right) is the most compelling character in the first six episodes. And the nomadic, brutal Dothraki warriors, whose leader is offered Deanerys in a clan-melding marriage of convenience. As power couples go, they're fascinating -- especially as their evolving relationship is reflected, and altered, in the bedroom.

Otherwise, it's individuals, not clans, who distinguish themselves in this giant narrative tapestry. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, a sharp-tongued hedonistic dwarf from the Lannister clan, is the one beacon of playfulness in this otherwise somber story.


Mark Addy, as King Robert (pictured at right), the Hagar-the-Horrible-ish head of the Baratheon clan, is winningly gruff -- and Lord Eddard's youngest son Bran (played by Isaac Hempstead-Wright), despite his boyish impetuousness, quickly rises to great heights.

Co-executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss adapted the story by Martin, whose own pre-novels TV resume includes writing and producing some episodes of Beauty and the Beast and the Eighties revival of The Twilight Zone.

The mood-setting and scene-setting pilot episode (shot on location in Northern Ireland and Malta, and on a Belfast soundstage) is directed by Tim Van Patten, whose resume, by this point, already has become absurdly impressive.

Early in his career, Van Patten was one of the young basketball-playing stars of The White Shadow, and guest starred in a few episodes of St. Elsewhere. As a TV director, Van Patten hit gold -- one rich vein after another. He directed a pair of Homicide: Life on the Street episodes, among other things, and soon became HBO's go-to-guy and all-around utility ace director.

Think I'm exaggerating? For HBO, Van Patten has directed episodes of Sex and the City. The Wire. Rome. The Sopranos -- 20 episodes of that series alone. Three episodes of The Pacific. Four, so far, of Boardwalk Empire. And now, the first two installments of Game of Thrones.

I like this show, and its look (give production designer Gemma Jackson and costume designer Michele Clapton special props, so to speak, for their work here), and a few of its characters, enough to keep watching. But six hours in, I'm still not hooked, just intrigued.

It's much, much more satisfying, though, than, say, Showtime's The Borgias, and has just as much deadly and erotic intrigue.

Yet six hours in, I'm still struggling to identify, much less identify with, many of the various clans and characters. The complexity of the story, though, and of the characters populating it, will keep me coming back. At least for a few more episodes -- after which point, I'm in danger of being Throne overboard.




Saul said:

Since this is my first time commenting allow me to get something out of the way: You sir have a taste for the very worst puns...and I love it.

I'm not a diehard fantasy fan, but I do enjoy the genre. I'm chronically disappointed how films/tv never seem to take themselves seriously. They always seem to be done with more than a few winks to the audience. When I heard that HBO was doing an 'Adult Fantasy' I was quite excited, then merely intrigued. After brief confusion (Caligula?) I though how great it would be to see a legitimate drama with dwarves, and magic that didn't try to be cute. HBO has done wonders with Westerns, War dramas, Cop shows, ect. So I'm excited to see them do a fantasy show.

P.S. Where do I get one of those scorecards...I'll be lost 5 minutes in given my inability to remember character names.

[I'm sure HBO has put the "scorecard" on its website. Check there first. It's a lot easier than becoming a TV critic. Oh, and thanks for the acknowledgment and acceptance of my bad pun at the end. It's just the sort of encouragement I need -- though it'll be a long time, I suspect, before I top my own suggested alternate title for an actual documentary about UFOs and Nazis: 'Close Encounters of the Third Reich.' - DB]

Comment posted on April 16, 2011 9:40 PM

Rich said:

Peter Dinklage, check! Mark Addy, Check!...Mystical looking erotic nordic Queen? Check! OK I'm Sold. It does look impressive from the TV promo's I've seen. If it's as good as you proclaim it should do quite well. Thanks for 'Throning' us a bone.

Comment posted on April 17, 2011 5:06 AM

Eileen said:

I can't comment on Game of Thrones as I don't get HBO. I just wanted to give you & your readers a heads-up on the Reelz presentation of The Kennedys.

Quite by accident I came upon the episodes under Time Warner Cable's "Free Movies on Demand". There it was, all eight episodes. For those out there with TWC who don't get Reelz, this is a way to watch it. Greg Kinnear is great, but that's really all I can say about the leads.

As many shows as there are that have been Kennedy-driven, I don't think any of them come close to the classic 1983 miniseries, Kennedy. Martin Sheen and Blair Brown were fabulous; supporting players John Shea, E.G. Marshall and Geraldine Fitzgerald just added to this exceptional presentation. I'm sure we haven't seen the last dissection of the Family Kennedy, but few have lived up to my expectations.

Just thought I'd mention this to anyone out there with TWC who would like to see this current miniseries. It is worth the time, and some of the supporting cast are quite good. And, it's free!

[Good call, Eileen. Yes, the 83 miniseries was best-of-breed, along with the much earlier, even better 'Missiles of October.' What amazed me about this new version is how they avoided staging the assassinations entirely. Editing and writing around them, to show the befores and afters... -- DB]

Comment posted on April 17, 2011 12:18 PM

Tausif Khan said:

David have you read the books the television show is based on?

From your previous reviews I can tell you are sci-fi/fantasy fan do like only watching these genres on television only or do you read them as well?

[Depends on the project. Some I've read, some I haven't. -- DB]

Comment posted on April 18, 2011 3:29 AM

Eileen said:

"Missiles of October" (one of the best miniseries ever) was theatrical-release quality. We won't be seeing that type of show on commercial tv ever again. The networks have discovered the cheapness (literally and figuratively) of reality tv, and we, the viewer, are at their mercy. Really unfortunate.

HBO, Showtime and AME have really picked up the slack in the past few years, and for that they really deserve a lot of credit. It's quite evident at the yearly Emmy Awards where the quality is coming from.

And what happened to the yearly airing of "The Ten Commandments"? It isn't really Easter 'til that old chestnut has been shown. (And, yes, I do watch it every year. Yul Brunner and Anne Baxter alone are worth the price of admission...)

Comment posted on April 18, 2011 4:52 PM

Mark N said:

OK David....I've had my eye on this show (what with all the ads) and even prepped with the 15 minute on-demand preview and promos. I'd say that the promos were a bit misleading but the research I did on the background of the project (huge undertaking I'd say) may help. It is clearly a bold and ambitious series, and though the genre is not often appreciated it started well and has some weight. Clearly the major problem will be identifying and dissecting the families and individual characters for those like myself that have never read the the books. I'd say that's the major challenge here...will this be a cult series or more? I too am risking valuable TV time to sign on for the ride without any real early indications. Let us know how you feel about the series before the end of its run if you can, David...Thanks as always for your honest heads-up on this large unnavigable sea of entertainment.

[My pleasure. And let's ALL check back on this one. I've seen six of the first 10, and I'm STILL not sure! - DB]

Comment posted on April 18, 2011 11:57 PM

Peter said:

I am a fan of these books. Having read the as yet to be completed series certainly helped me follow the pilot episode (which, by the way, was quite faithful to book).
I can't help but wonder how well others who haven't read the book will follow it - I know plenty of folks who hated the LOTR movies because of all the random characters and wandering plot lines.
I saw that HBO already picked up the series for another season and I think it will be interesting to see how the series deals with the ever-expanding array of characters that the book continues to add it as the story moves forward (especially after the first book).
I will say (without spoiling anything) that while some plot lines are not well resolved by the end of book 1- the end of The Game of Thrones novel is quite satisfying. I hope the series can pull it off as well as the book did.

[Peter - Thanks for the informed show of faith. And yes, HBO's instant renewal means it has a lot of faith as well... - DB]

Comment posted on April 19, 2011 6:08 PM

amattei said:

the last 3 chapters of the tv series Game of Thrones were so bad i don't think i will be watching the last seasons' chapters. I can't stand Ned's dead. If the books are like this and you still go on reading, then something was missed in the translation to tv.

Comment posted on June 12, 2011 10:13 PM

Mullin | Tiendas Muebles said:

Game of thrones is, probably, the best TV serie that I've ever seen.
It's raw and real like none, and reflects the European Middle Age (althought was fantastic, not historic) in all over its dimension.
The characters and the script have an incredible depth.
Perhaps, the sex scenes and explicit violence are too frequent.

Comment posted on September 12, 2011 2:14 AM
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