With Game of Thrones season 8 (opens in new tab) very nearly here, it's easy to forget that not everyone loved the fantasy epic to begin with. It feels like the hit HBO show has always been a TV force to be reckoned with, but it’s not like everyone saw the first episode on April 17, 2011 and immediately hailed it the King of Television. Hell, some people didn’t even say that after they saw the whole first season!
Like many of our favourite shows, it grew in popularity over time and didn’t gain hit status until it was well into its first few seasons. Some people saw it coming from the beginning, others… didn’t. If you don’t remember what the critical opinion of the Game of Thrones was when it was first released (I mean, it was over eight years ago now… who has that good a memory?!), here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly early verdicts on one of the biggest shows in TV history.
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The New York Times
Ginia Bellafante quite rightly singled out the enormous cast early on in her review for The New York Times (opens in new tab), and suggested an alternative for anyone who couldn’t keep up:
Game of Thrones is a cast-of-at-least-many-hundreds production, with sweeping Braveheart shots of warrior hordes. Keeping track of the principals alone feels as though it requires the focused memory of someone who can play bridge at a Warren Buffett level of adeptness. In a sense the series, which will span 10 episodes, ought to come with a warning like, ‘If you can’t count cards, please return to reruns of Sex and the City.’
Also, she seemed to think/joke that the show was all about global warming...
Embedded in the narrative is a vague global-warming horror story. Rival dynasties vie for control over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros — a territory where summers are measured in years, not months, and where winters can extend for decades.
How did this come to pass? We are in the universe of dwarfs, armor, wenches, braids, loincloth. The strange temperatures clearly are not the fault of a reliance on inefficient HVAC systems. Given the bizarre climate of the landmass at the center of the bloody disputes — and the series rejects no opportunity to showcase a beheading or to offer a slashed throat close-up — you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. We are not talking about Palm Beach.
But the sexual content was apparently only added to make a fantasy show appealing to women. Not sure I agree with that...
Like The Tudors and The Borgias on Showtime and the Spartacus series on Starz, Game of Thrones, is a costume-drama sexual hopscotch, even if it is more sophisticated than its predecessors…
The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to The Hobbit first. Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
The Wall Street Journal
Nancy deWolf Smith wasn’t much kinder over at The Wall Street Journal (opens in new tab):
We’re back to the familiar favorites of the infantile, e.g. spurting blood and gore, bastard sons, evil vixens, blond nymphets, quasi-lesbian action, crude talk among men about their private parts, incest, rough couplings, and more random bare breasts than any other contender in the adolescent-boy-action-show contest this month.
The Boston Herald
The Boston Herald (opens in new tab)’s Mark A. Perigard was concerned about the size of the cast too:
Not since HBO’s The Wire has there been a cast so big — HBO’s helpful press kit includes a family tree that features seven prominent families and more than 30 characters. That doesn’t include several prominent recurring players. Keeping track of people — much less learning their names — is the biggest hurdle in this competent if sometimes trying adaptation.
Plus, there was only one moment in the first two episodes he rated!
The opening moments tonight, in which some men come across a terrifying massacre and are then ambushed, are exciting. Little else in the first two episodes compares.Those who love the books will probably geek out on the series. The rest of us may have a harder time sitting through Game of Thrones.
And they weren’t the only ones who had problems with the show...
David Hinckley from the New York Daily News (opens in new tab) said: "When you're three episodes into a series and still unsure which member of which family holds which nominal role in which ruling household, you may start asking whether the effort is worth the payback."
The Washington Post (opens in new tab)'s Hank Stuever explained: "It is possible to admire Game of Thrones for its sincerity and clarity of purpose - its utter devotion to form and detail - while the rest of your TV brain struggles to keep pace with what happens... The eternal question is, are you up for the journey? It's about becoming (or not becoming) the kind of viewer who can sign on to such a daunting amount of Dark Ages hoo-hah."
Hal Boedeker wrote for The Orlando Sentinel (opens in new tab): "Game of Thrones doesn't touch the heart. The series too often puts children and animals in jeopardy; depicts lopped heads and geysers of blood; and lingers over an incestuous relationship with unsettling results… You're subjected to a lot of unpleasantness, but there's no dramatic pay-off to make the slog worthwhile."
By and large though, there were plenty of other reviewers who loved Game of Thrones and saw it for the cult hit TV show it would become.
Richard Edwards over at GamesRadar+’s sister publication SFX magazine (opens in new tab) quite rightly claimed it would bring fantasy to the masses:
If any show has the potential to make fantasy credible in the non-geek world – Lord of the Rings may have bagged a Hobbit hole full of Oscars, but let’s face it, there’s still some serious anti-Middle-earth sentiment out there – it’s this adaptation of George RR Martin’s acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire series.
He also praised the lack of magic which so many fantasy movies and TV often rely on.
The near absence of magic is good for the show as it starts out, because it gives the human characters a chance to shine in their own right. Westeros is inhabited by real people who just happen to live in a strange world. They exist in dramatically satisfying shades of moral grey, talk in (mostly) contemporary dialogue, and are generally looking out for number one – no noble quests to destroy some evil ring here.
Ken Tucker reviewed the first couple of episode for Entertainment Weekly (opens in new tab) and addressed the talk around the sex and violence in a positive way:
Game of Thrones has had a lot of advance hype for being full of sex and violence, and I don’t want to deny the pleasure those things can bring us in entertainment. But the sex ’n’ violence is also better grounded in plot and motivation than in other recent TV efforts such as The Borgias and Spartacus — that’s where working with quality source material helps a lot.
He also praised the fantastic performances and singled out future fan favourites Arya and Tyrion, even predicting Peter Dinklage’s Emmy win...
If I had to single out a few performances among many excellent ones, I’d say that Bean’s Lord Eddard Stark, an almost Hamlet-like, brooding man of action, makes a wonderful pairing with Stark’s old friend, now the king, Robert Baratheon (Still Standing’s Mark Addy). Among the women, young Maisie Williams is a little star in the making as Eddard’s plucky tomboy daughter. And if Dinklage doesn’t get an Emmy for his clever, rude Tyrion Lannister, I’ll be gobsmacked.
He ended by imploring viewers to give the show a chance and no doubt, he was right:
You may find yourself beginning Game of Thrones and getting lost in its thicket of who’s related to whom and remembering what grudge one clan holds against another, but I implore you: Stick with it. Free your eyes to take in the spectacle, and your brain will magically start following the intricate storytelling.
Game of Thrones season 8 airs this Sunday, April 14 on HBO in the US and the day after on Sky Atlantic in the UK. Check out the other new TV shows (opens in new tab) you should be watching this year, including the final season of Thrones.