Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TV Review: Game of Thrones Premiere

Oh damnable hype. The lead-up to HBO's extravagant fantasy serial Game of Thrones has been feverish, with reviews ranging from adulatory (most of the reviews) to glibly dismissive (the ones everyone talks about). It is, consequently, difficult to review the product itself, which premiered last Sunday on the Home Box Office, rather than just run down the hype (which is precisely what I'm doing right now). There's also been a steady stream of behind-the-scenes clips, concept art, and, most bizarrely, stories of environmental atrocities coming from the general direction of the production.

Couple that with the fact that the series is based on an as-yet-unfinished series of novels (collectively referred to as A Song of Ice and Fire) by former Twilight Zone writer and current Psychlo George R.R. Martin, and things get even trickier. After all, I've read a couple of the books myself, which makes it far easier for me to figure out what was going on in the pilot, which was most likely bewildering to anyone who hasn't read the book.

What's a reviewer to do?

I guess a summary's the easiest place to start. Game of Thrones follows the Starks of Winterfell, a beardy group of dour knights who use the phrase "Winter is coming" like it's punctuation. Well, the series doesn't only follow them. You could see the Starks as the anchor in the stormy seas of the Ice and Fire saga. Because, over the course of the series, Martin throws our lot in with the scheming Lannisters, the hardy Baratheons, the slimy Greyjoys, the scrappy Seaworths, and the Targaryens, who live on an entirely different continent "across the narrow sea." And those are just a few of the more than 300 (!) houses that comprise this alternate universe.

The vast majority of the action, however, takes place on the continent of Westeros, which of course most closely resembles Medieval Europe. The various houses vie for the eponymous throne, housed at the capital city of King's Landing.

Almost none of this is made clear in "Winter is Coming," the episode that aired on Sunday night. We get a brief introduction to the Starks, the Lannisters, the Baratheons, and the Targaryens, but not much apart from that. We learn that the Jon Arryn, the hand of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), has just died, and the King is looking to Eddard Stark (Sean Bean, dour and magnificent as always) to replace him. The hand of the the king, vaunted as it may sound, is a thankless job at best and a deadly one at worst. Eddard (oftentimes known by the beguilingly dull nickname "Ned") is the kind of hardy, humble soldier we love, who'd prefer to stay with wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and the rest of his family at Winterfell rather than take the job with all the glory/death. Plus, he'd rather not contend with Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a pair who fuck over everyone who aren't themselves and (SPOILER ALERT) just fuck each other. Throw in Tyrion Lannister (the always-magnificent Peter Dinklage), the cunning dwarf, and who wouldn't want to stay home?

Why so serious?
The first bit of the story is just about the only time when most of the principals are in the same place. See, Martin divides each of his books into at least eight different POVs, which allows him to jump from one end of the kingdom to the other with a minimum of fuss. It even lets him jump to the continent across the sea to follow the exploits of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd) as they try to reclaim the Targaryen throne (I won't even get into that now) with the help of Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) and his band of Dothraki barbarians.

Many reviewers have commented on the difficulty of translating this kind of narrative structure from page to screen (I'm having trouble translate it from page to webpage), but, come on, we're talking about the network that aired The Wire, a show that made memorable characters out of 100-odd drug dealers with names like "Stinkum" and "Cheese."

Nevertheless, such a rich back-story is a heavy burden on a first episode, and "Winter is Coming" is almost 100% set-up. To be fair, though, what wonderful set-up it is. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptations set the bar for production values in the modern fantasy film, and Game of Thrones matches it step-for-step. The costumes are fabulous, the sets (especially the eerie calm of the Godswood) are unbelievable, and the casting is just about perfect. Everything looks and feels exactly like you'd expect it to from the book.

Showrunners David Benioff (The 25th Hour) and D.B. Weiss (the oft-overlooked Lucky Wander Boy) rise to the challenge, crafting suitably grand-sounding monologues for their great cast to chew on. In a sense, they get to have their cake and eat it to, as they get to adapt Martin's great narrative while being freed from Martin's abominable prose.

The series will have to walk a fine line, initiating viewers who'd never dream of picking up a thousand-page fantasy novel while satisfying the table-top RPG-playing hardcore fans. "Winter is Coming" doesn't stand too well on its own, but if HBO's laundry list of successful serialized hits demonstrates, good things come to those who wait. And I'm pretty patient.

Game of Thrones airs Sunday nights at 9 eastern time on HBO.