Winter is coming and with it, Christmas, the promise of longer days to come, and a new year in pop culture. For dedicated fans of George R.R. Martin, 2011 particularly means that his sweeping, sophisticated fantasy series, A Game of Thrones, is finally coming to the small screen as a lush HBO show. Given Martin's slow progress towards the finale of what's supposed to be a seven-book series, the series will tide them over. And HBO's expansion into a new genre is good for television as the medium slugs it out with film for preeminence.
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In this astonishing age of television, the three channels that have made the boldest, most sophisticated shows—HBO, AMC, and Showtime—have largely set them in the world we live in. The recreations and interpretations of history vary. A New York advertising executive embodies the greatness of an era and the depth of its fall; in New Jersey, murder is not incompatible with raising a terrific daughter and sending her off to Columbia; a Kansas City housewife tries to balance her multiple personalities.
And when magic enters into our world, it's usually in the form of minor alterations. A mystic brings miracles to a surfing community, or a teenage girl finds a second life as a Grim Reaper, but the facts and rules of the universe remain the same. AMC's new hit zombie series The Walking Dead is set in a world discernibly our own: law enforcement still signals competence and respect, the Centers for Disease Control still represent hope, and even zombieism is rooted in our current understandings of viral disease.
Even True Blood, the deliciously campy HBO vampire series based on Charlaine Harris's vampire novels, situates its fantasy firmly within the existing world. The dead-and-loving-it vampires are explicitly and implicitly an update perfectly suited to an era of resurgent gay rights. Fairy blood explains why some people are more attractive than others, and the building trades and military have a heavy infusion of werewolf. Both in the novels and on television, fantasy is a way of translating our society rather than offering an alternative to it.
Game of Thrones, by stark contrast, is a fully realized world with highly developed moral codes, faith systems, and sophisticated magic that offers challenging new ways to explore many of the ideas that the best in premium cable has done so effectively. The show, which like Martin's books will chronicle the struggle for power after the king of a realm like medieval England, himself a usurper of a previous dynasty, meets a premature death, is being marketed as The Sopranos with swords. But it's a significantly different beast.
Shows like The Sopranos and The Wire seem so strikingly original because they each ask the audience to take a conceptual leap rendered difficult by the rules most of us live by. What if running a crime syndicate was completely compatible with being a decent, struggling family man with a rich and complicated inner life? What if a gangster is more ethical and useful to society than a city police chief? Movies sometimes ask us to consider questions or pose reversals like that over the course of several hours. The Sopranos and The Wire spun them out, and required us to sustain them, over dozens of episodes and years of debates.
But while realistic television asks viewers to believe one or two impossible things before watching, Game of Thrones demands that watchers accept far more. For Game of Thrones to work, it will have to introduce audiences to complicated interactions of faith and magic, to persuade them to accept and honor societies of pillagers, and to convince viewers not only that dragons are real, but that they are a literal bulwark against a real and frosty evil. Those kinds of sustained leaps, and the willingness to commit to them, are the reason both that fantasy is a niche genre, and that it's a shame that fantasy is a niche genre. The only person who has really been able to make a mass cultural event out of fantasy set in a world not our own in recent years is Peter Jackson, with his adaptations of Lord of the Rings, a far more established and well-known series. And he only had to convince audiences to sit through nine hours of movies, spread out over a number of years.
Game of Thrones won't be able to hook audiences with either the novelty of The Sopranos, the first show of the current era to become both must-see TV and critical gold, or the highly entertaining cri de coeur of The Wire's look at poverty, drugs, and bureaucratic failure in Baltimore. But it will be a pity if Game of Thrones is pigeon-holed as a nerd's delight, or criticized for failing to be enough like one of its more realist predecessors.
In Martin's universe, the fantastical elements aren't just for show or for metaphor; they're powerfully designed tools for contemplation. The books work, and I suspect the show will too, because in them, chivalry isn't simply something silly that people used to do long ago, and magic is more deadly than it is entertaining or sexy. And its characters offer more than the slightly naughty thrill of sympathizing with a conventionally bad man. If HBO can capture Martin's construction of his world and offer audiences a constantly destabilized sense of history and moral understanding of the story's events, Game of Thrones could be even more brilliantly tricky and unsettling than its predecessors: not just The Sopranos with swords, but The Sopranos on speed.
Winter is coming, both to us, and to the family at the center of Game of Thrones who take those words as their motto. And if HBO can elevate fantasy within the pantheon of serious dramatic TV, an even richer television culture is also on its way.