When a television network sends a family tree along with screener DVDs, it’s a sign that what you’re about to watch might be a tad complicated.
To experience a program the way the public does — without any guidance from press materials — you need to put the family tree aside and immerse yourself in the show. With HBO’s Game of Thrones, premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday, that’s easy to do.
A grand soap opera of epic proportions, Game of Thrones can be talky in some episodes, but the series draws in viewers with well-defined characters and many simultaneous stories with unpredictable plots. Let the squeamish be forewarned: Thrones is an often-violent tale told with nudity, profanity, and sex — including at least one incestuous relationship.
Filled with the distinctive locations and landscapes of a fictional, ancient realm, Game of Thrones introduces dozens of characters and relationships with purpose and remarkable clarity given the material’s density.
For viewers, myself included, who have not read the George R.R. Martin novels upon which this TV series is based, there are moments of confusion about a relationship or motivation, but the show usually resolves these head-scratchers within a few minutes of when they arise. (Matters are more muddled when the characters discuss past actions.)
It also helps that the show’s opening credits zoom over a map of the locations where the stories take place, including:
Home of the Starks, who are really the heart of the Game of Thrones story, this northern city is overseen by Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean). His wife, Lady Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), and children also reside there, including eldest son Robb (Richard Madden) and fearless tomboy daughter Arya (Maisie Williams), whose spirited idealism makes her one of the most compelling characters despite her young age.
Ned frequently proclaims, “Winter is coming,” which means more in the Seven Kingdoms than it does in our world: Seasons can last a generation.
A man-made edifice north of Winterfell, The Wall protects cities to the south from mysterious ghouls that haunt a north-of-The Wall forest and wreak havoc in the show’s opening scenes. Ned’s brother, Benjen (Joseph Mawle), is a member of Night’s Watch, which guards against marauders getting past The Wall. Ned’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), trains to join the Night’s Watch.
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
PASADENA, Calif. — Game of Thrones may be described by some as Lord of the Rings: The Television Series, and there’s even a ready-made LOTR connection: Actor Sean Bean appears in both.
“I do happen to enjoy playing those kind of roles: Riding horses, wearing wigs, growing beards,” Bean said. “I do have an affinity to that kind of role, and I think the good thing about Game of Thrones is there is such scope for it. With Lord of the Rings there were admittedly three films and they were thoroughly researched and very well replicated on screen, but with what George [author George R.R. Martin] has created, it’s a very different world that goes on much longer and has more twists and tales.”
A few years ago, Thrones executive producer/writer David Benioff described the series as The Sopranos meets Middle Earth, a comparison he now regrets but can ably defend.
“HBO is really good at exploring genres, whether it’s gangsters or westerns or cop dramas, and one thing that intrigued us was you could actually lavish time on these characters and do it with the darkness the stories require,” Benioff said.
“These are not children’s fantasy. It’s sexy, violent, and brutal and none of the characters are safe. Characters you think will go on for six seasons meet an early end. When you think of shows putting characters in jeopardy, it’s HBO and Sopranos. One of the things about The Sopranos or The Wire was you never know who will get whacked. We’re not a gangster show, but it has elements of that.”
King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) summons Ned Stark to serve as the King’s Hand after the death (murder?) of his previous adviser. The King is married to Cersei (Lena Headey), a member of the manipulative Lannister family, which also includes dastardly Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and scheming Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who is called “the imp.”
Tyrion is one of the more entertaining characters in Game of Thrones, and Dinklage makes him a charming scoundrel, sort of a latter-day Dr. House.
The king’s young son, Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), is heir to the throne and intended to be married to Ned’s daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner).
Across the sea, Prince Viserys Targaryen III (Harry Lloyd), who burns with hatred for King Robert, plots a return to power by agreeing to have his sister, Princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), married off to Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), leader of the savage Dothraki, in exchange for an army of Dothraki warriors.
Sunday night’s Game of Thrones premiere, written by executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, sets the table for a feast of a series.
Viewers bored with predictable procedurals should welcome the opportunity to dig into this sprawling story, TV’s most challenging serialized drama since Lost. Game of Thrones may not have that show’s heart, but it does share a complexity in storytelling that’s unmatched in prime-time television today.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is a television writer for the Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.