And for once it wasn’t Sean Bean who got his shirt off

Those who read my previous posts might be interested in these thoughtful reviews and discussion of elf-shagging Dragon Age 2 and Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story, respectively. And then you could read Dan Hemmens’ review of The Wise Man’s Fear and the discussion of it over at Asking the Wrong Questions, and actually you may as well just go and read all of Ferretbrain and Asking the Wrong Questions. It’s ok, I’ll wait.

I watched Game of Thrones the other day with a mixed group of both book fans, and those who’d never read any of them. I fall into the former group, and I think it’s unsurprising that I loved it, because this is a show, and the first few episodes in particular, where the experience is going to be so different between the different groups of fans that it’s hard to compare them.

(Here be spoilers, by the way.)

Trying to look at it objectively, I think it did the best job it could with the difficult task of introducing a whole new world and set of characters in one hour. Westeros is recognisable as a vaguely medieval world, a setting we’re familiar with, but you have to introduce the big things, like the seven kingdoms and the lands across the sea, and the long seasons turning to winter, not to mention the Wall and what it represents. Certain aspects were barely touched, but they got over the main points, helped by the way that Pentos and Kings Landing really do look different from the chill of the Wall and the grim greyness of Winterfell. Characters I’m not sure they managed as well. There was some debate as to whether they could have left the whole strand in Pentos until the second episode, and focus on the Starks and Lannisters and Baratheons, and there’s some merit to that – more time to dwell on Robert and Ned and how they are friends wouldn’t go amiss, and when they talk about the five Stark children it’s pretty tricky to work out which of the half-dozen children hanging around are actually Starks. I’m not sure that matters, though – what they needed to convey they did, and while it led to occasionally clumsy bits of dialogue about bastards and siblings, it gets across.

But were I coming to the show cold, I don’t think it would have won me over based on this episode. Watching Daenerys be so utterly passive is painful unless you know it’s going to contrast against her actions for the rest of the season; watching Sansa be a typical teenager isn’t as interesting unless you know what it’s setting up (and there’s a hint of it in Cersei’s cool attitude and blunt questions about whether she menstruates). There’s lots of sex, and you couldn’t do without Daenerys and Drogo’s wedding night, or Jaime and Cersei’s tryst in the tower, but it’s a shame that Tyrion’s introduction doesn’t bring out his cleverness as much as his lustiness. And I’m not sure the scene with the young men of Winterfell really needed to stand around chatting while stripped to the waist.

There’s another argument, though – should a show be judged based on a single episode? Yes, it’s important to try and hook your viewers, but especially on the cable television model of short seasons, are viewers more prepared to invest a few more hours before they get the payoff? Alan Sepinwall admits he occasionally uses Wikipedia to keep track of the characters and their relationships (although not for the pilot episode, which he still liked). I’ve done the same, when I was trying to keep track of who was who in Frank Sobotka’s union, or the Barksdale crew. I can think of a whole bunch of recent, really excellent shows where I haven’t been hooked immediately – Mad Men‘s first episode is deeply unsubtle, after the first hour of Treme I could name maybe three characters and one of those was “John Goodman”, and I still don’t know who all the interchangeable gangsters are in Boardwalk Empire. If what it takes to get TV which doesn’t stick to a tried and tested formula of police procedural or plucky lawyer is that I have to be willing to give it a little more time and spend some of it being confused, then I think it’s worth giving it a shot.

4 Thoughts on “And for once it wasn’t Sean Bean who got his shirt off

  1. The AV Club reviewer also made the point that a lot of HBO shows don’t feel the need to hook the viewer from the get-go. That said, I think there was something more distinctive and more intriguing about the premieres of both Deadwood and Treme than either Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire managed – neither one brought across just how good its show would become, but they both left you with a definite hook. (It’s worth noting, however, that the Treme premiere was extra-long – I wonder if in the years since Deadwood HBO has started giving its writers more time to win over an audience.) I don’t fault GoT’s writers for struggling with the introductory portions of their story (the fanservice-y nudity, explicit sex, and questionable presentation of non-white characters, on the other hand…), and HBO’s promotional engine has probably guaranteed them the window they need to win over the audience. But I came to the show as someone who was underwhelmed by the book, and had hoped that freed of Martin’s lackluster prose and questionable storytelling decisions (I’m glad the writers decided to age the kids up and thus shake off some of the inexplicable YA-ness of the first book, but why keep the stupid dogs?) the series could make something genuinely exciting out of his story. That may yet happen, but I’m not won over yet.

    • liz on 28/04/2011 at 1:12 am said:

      (It’s worth noting, however, that the Treme premiere was extra-long – I wonder if in the years since Deadwood HBO has started giving its writers more time to win over an audience.)

      I did wonder whether an extra-long episode would have worked better, but the point where they ended the first episode was so clearly the best place to end it that I wonder if a 90 or 120-minute episode would feel padded. I wasn’t as taken with the Treme premiere, which felt over-long to me.

      (the fanservice-y nudity, explicit sex, and questionable presentation of non-white characters, on the other hand…)

      Yes, I am … not entirely thrilled with Khal Drogo and the Dothraki. I’m not entirely happy with them in the books, but there’s some nuance which so far is not present in the show.

  2. Neither Julie nor I have read the books, and we’re both hooked after one episode. I wasn’t hooked immediately after watching the episode, but 24 hours later we were both discussing how much we’re looking forward to the next one and seeing where it goes next.

    There’s clearly going to be a lot of backstory, but I’m happy to be fed it in little bits as the episodes go along.

  3. Nick H. on 29/04/2011 at 10:54 pm said:

    [Will just mention first that I’ve only seen the first episode so far on account of I haven’t caught the second one yet.]

    “Watching Daenerys be so utterly passive is painful unless you know it’s going to contrast against her actions for the rest of the season; watching Sansa be a typical teenager isn’t as interesting unless you know what it’s setting up”

    I’m curious – why should this be an issue for the TV show when, presumably, the same could be said for the books? Saying ‘this is rubbish if you don’t know what happens later’ ignores the fact that at one point you didn’t know what happened later either, but that didn’t stop you from reading on.

    In any case, as someone who hasn’t read the books yet, I got along with the show just fine. If you ignore the genre tropes and everything, it’s not that dissimilar from other shows like Deadwood or the Wire where you’re dropped into a large cast of characters and expected to pick it up as you go along.

    “it’s a shame that Tyrion’s introduction doesn’t bring out his cleverness as much as his lustiness.”

    I thought the second scene he had with Jon Snow brought did quite well at showing he has a brain as well as being sex-mad. Which i appreciate may not be the cleverness you mean (seeing as I’ve not read the books), but I’m sure the show will develop his character as it goes on; as it stands, he was one of my favourites in the episode anyway.

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