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'Game of Thrones' Review: All the Elements of a Great HBO Drama

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Apr 18, 2011 | 9:14am EDT

Game of Thrones Sean BeanThroughout the weekend I was talking up Game of Thrones, HBO’s bold new fantasy series based on George R.R. Martin’s novels of the same name, to anyone who’d listen to me. The story is set in a world where seven noble families are fighting for control of Westeros; Martin’s Middle-Earth, if you will. As a genre enthusiast and a proponent of all things HBO I had been anticipating the arrival of this epic, serialized saga for sometime, but my fiancée was not as impressed by the trailers and promos we’d been teased with for the last six months or so.

“It’s just like every HBO show: Sex, violence, etc.” she proclaimed, with the viewing experience to back up that statement. “But honey, this is a fantasy show on HBO,” I said. “It’s never really been done before, and you know how much I like the swords-and-sorcery stuff…” Luckily, the lady gave in and sat down with me at 9:00PM sharp last night to view the premiere of the season’s most talked about new show, and you know what? She was right. Game of Thrones, though somewhat a departure and an incredible achievement for the channel that has brought programs like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire and In Treatment, shares strands of the same DNA that runs through the majority its programming.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, there are more than a few familiar characteristics found within a handful of HBO’s best titles that were noticeably present in its Game of Thrones adaptation, but seeing as the channel has produced some of the most entertaining shows of all time, it's hard to complain about likening it to other gems. Martin has created some wonderful mythology for the creative team to mine and they've already rendered an immersive world to behold, so my advice is to get on the train now before you're left behind.

Read on for a breakdown of what the pilot, “Winter Is Coming,” contained, with a few thoughts on how it compared and conformed to some of the channels other shows.

What A Cast of Characters

Almost all contemporary TV shows feature an ensemble cast, with a few focusing more heavily on a particular character (Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, HBO’s The Sopranos). With seven ruling families at its core, Game of Thrones is no different and last night’s pilot introduced us to more characters than it probably should have. Please keep in mind that I have not read Mr. Martin’s novels, so it was more difficult for me (and many viewers) to keep up with all the character introductions and their connections than it, perhaps, was for those who have. 

That said, it’s quite clear whom the show's creators want us to root for and against. The episode’s central protagonist, Ned Stark (played by Sean Bean, who’s no stranger to swordplay), rules the northern kingdom of Winterfell with righteousness and caution, always preparing for the worst and hoping for the best as he presides over his people. His large family, which includes a wife and more kids than I can keep track of, all have motivations and goals of their own, from daughter Sansa who wishes to marry into royalty and live in the metropolitan capital city at King’s Landing to bastard son Jon Snow, who wants nothing more than to join his uncle Benjen Stark on the Night Watch (a group of hardened warriors who guard a massive Wall that separates civilization and the mysterious and dangerous wild.)

Of course, all the other noble clans have a host of characters to get acquainted with, giving the audience lots of options to choose from for their “favorite.” There’s the House of Baratheon, which includes the current King Robert and his treacherous wife Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady) as well as children Joffrey, Myrcella, Tommen, Renly and Stannis. Across the sea, we meet the remaining members of the Targaryen family; the lecherous, opportunistic and arrogant Viserys, who unites his line with that of the powerful, nomadic Dothraki people by marrying his young sister Daeneyrs and Khal Drogo, a warlord prince of sorts. Viserys plans to use the army of his new brother-in-law to take back the Iron Throne (which was under his family’s rule for nearly 300 years before the House of Baratheon ended their reign and killed off his clan), but something tells me he won’t be successful.

Like I said, lots of characters to meet, very little time to do so. I expect this large population to be drastically reduced in size as battles rage throughout the season (and I can imagine many characters replaced by others as we learn more about the respective family trees), but one thing is for sure: their arcs are all carefully calculated and each is as intriguing and interesting to explore as the next.

Game of Thrones Emilia ClarkeLet's Talk About Sex, Sire

Perhaps one of the most appealing elements of any premium channel program, Game of Thrones didn’t hold back on the sexual content and the pilot featured more than a few depraved acts. In fact, it was hard to find any semblance of normalcy in the coitus at hand. I’m sure that unknowing audiences were somewhat blown away by veteran actor Peter Dinklage’s introduction, which first finds him cavorting with a local prostitute, followed by four whores. Emilia Clarke, who plays the beautiful Daeneyrs, spends a great deal of screen time bare naked; first in an awkward scene with her brother, another as she’s about to be taken by her new husband Drogo against a gorgeous pink-and-purple backdrop of the narrow sea and sky, visualizing the great contrast of the beauty of the natural world and the heartbreaking situations in which its inhabitants find themselves in.

Most shocking, however, was the incestuous relationship between twins Cersei and Jamie Lannister. Hardcore, porn-like sex scenes on HBO shows are commonplace (our collective palettes have been broadened thanks to True Blood and Rome), but there was something about seeing brother and sister going at it in the hay that just left me feeling icky. However, I think that this uncomfortable sexual sequence is just the tip of the iceberg of what Game of Thrones has in store for us.

A Taste Of The Good, Old Ultra-Violence

On the flip side of the sex coin is the amount of carnage that many of HBO’s shows contain. Compared to the weekly doses of graphic violence that Oz, The Wire, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire provide, Game of Thrones was rather tame in its inaugural run. The fantastically staged and filmed opening sequence (which showed us, quite brutally, what The Night Watch is protecting Westeros from) aside, we didn’t see much bloodshed in “Winter Is Coming,” apart from a merciful beheading and the attempted murder of the inquisitive young Bran Stark. That’s not to say that, in a story centered on various families and houses battling one another, there won’t be plenty bloodshed to come, but there’s no reason to let believe that it will be any worse than what the premium channel has shown us in the past.

Game of Thrones HeadeyWarring Nations/Houses/Families

This is, perhaps, the greatest common factor within all of HBO’s dramatic programming. Whether it’s the New Jersey and New York mobsters fighting for their piece of the pie or Octavian and Marc Anthony clashing over control of Rome, there’s almost always opposition among the many groups of characters in any particular show. In Game of Thrones, the quest for the crown is not just a seasonal plot-point; it’s what drives the central narrative of the entire series.

As previously stated, the Stark’s, Baratheon’s, Greyjoy’s, Lannister’s, Martell’s, Targaryen’s and Tyrell’s all conspire against one another for rule of Westeros, whether they have alliances with other Houses or not. It’s this kind of strategic drama that has made past productions like Boardwalk Empire and Rome so nail-bitingly addictive and engrossing, so I expect the rocky relationships between the various characters and their clans to create some tense feuds as the story unfolds.

The Highest Order of Production Values

More than any of the aforementioned elements of an HBO show, other than AMC I can’t think of another channel that brings such high quality programming to its audience. It’s practically the definition of the brand, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” and for good reason.

“Winter Is Coming” had a perfect balance of character, story, sub-text and exposition, making it easy for new recruits to enter the world without feeling too overwhelmed by the breadth of its daunting mythology. The writing is top notch; we're introduced to characters with hints of their back-story’s without becoming dependent on the details that only those familiar with the source material are privy to. Characters are defined in their most basic terms so that viewers can understand and even relate to them emotionally while showing us where they all fit within the larger narrative. We're given just us enough information to be interested without feeling overloaded.

Visually, Game of Thrones could be the most stunning series that HBO has ever produced. We don’t often get to see so many breathtaking environments in one episode (let alone a pilot) of TV, so I was floored by the beautiful photography. From the frozen wastelands of Winterfell to the picturesque sea-side setting where Daeneyrs was married, the organic feel of the show will prove to be an amazing attraction for audiences. Quite similarly, the production design is a marvel. With a rumored seasonal budget of around $60 million, it should come as no surprise that the sets were all painstakingly particular in their construction, accentuating the differences between the various cultures and Houses of the land.

Game of Thrones The Stark FamilyThe Bottom Line

The marriage of all these physical accomplishments resulted in one of the most entertaining hours of television that I’ve seen all year, a triumph that few outlets other than HBO could achieve. I’m excited to know virtually nothing about where Game of Thrones is going in its 10 episode run this year. Just as the characters are unaware of what gruesome or glorious fate awaits them, I, too, look forward to the surprises that the story will bring as this expansive epic show leaves its mark on pop-culture. The one thing I do know is that, based on the strength of this pilot, the world is in store for a truly special program that seems to be honoring its creator’s vision while taking on a life of its own.

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