As True Blood is to Twilight, so Game of Thrones is to The Lord of the Rings. Okay, it’s a slightly simplistic comparison – and probably rather harsh on old J. R. R. Tolkien – but in terms of tone and content, the analogy stands up. Game of Thrones is epic fantasy for grown-ups.
As you’d expect from HBO, America’s finest purveyor of critical darling TV, it’s a heady brew of sex, violence, and bad language, all wrapped up in a tale of feuding families in the fantasy world of Westeros. With graphic guttings, liberal use of F- and C-bombs, and even a bit of incest, these first two episodes aren’t shy with the content, but far more important than any shock value is the quality of the drama. Indeed, 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.
As fantasy worlds go, Westeros is more swords than sorcery, so aside from a set of dragon eggs and a murderous presence that lurks outside the land’s giant outer wall, this could almost be a medieval Europe. 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.
Such is the quality of the writing that even people who haven’t read Martin’s books can quickly feel at home in his world. Numerous complex plotlines are set in motion – way too many to summarise here – as decades of the tensions that exist between a colossal cast of characters across disparate royal houses are cleverly hinted at, scratching the surface of a deep mythology. This is dense storytelling, but it never feels info-dumpy or overwhelming.
And aside from a couple of slightly iffy British accents (why does the idea that fantasy characters have to hail from Blighty persist?), the performances are uniformly brilliant. Everyone looks comfortable in their roles, whether they’re chopping a deserter’s head off (Sean Bean) or wearing a glam-rock blond wig (Harry Lloyd and Emilia Clarke).
If there’s one criticism it’s that the beautiful Northern Irish backgrounds aren’t quite as spectacular as New Zealand, but hey, you can’t have it all – and that’s hardly going to stop Game of Thrones from shooting towards the top of our must-watch list.