'Game of Thrones' Review: Gripping and Unpredictable

'Game of Thrones' Review: Gripping and Unpredictable

With Season Two of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” starting on April 1st, this is a good time to review the series to give you a chance to catch up. Bottom line, “Thrones” is a gripping series, but you have to give it time to grow on you.

“Game of Thrones” is based on the book of the same name by George R.R. Martin. This is part of his epic fantasy series called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” First published in 1996, “Thrones” won lots of awards in 1997 and has since been turned into several board games. But it wasn’t until January 2011, after HBO announced the series that the book finally hit the New York Times bestseller list.

The series stars Sean Bean (“Ronin,” “Lord of the Rings”) as Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, and it revolves around the political intrigue which surrounds his family and several rival families, most notably the Lannister family. One of the producers has jokingly described the series as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth,” and in some ways that’s a good way to describe it. Indeed, the show involves murders, plots, betrayals, and family rivalries. And like “The Sopranos,” the show is highly unpredictable. People you don’t expect will get killed. People you trust will betray their friends. And your opinion of the characters will change over time.

Nobody highlights this better than Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), the dwarf brother of Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey from “300”). Dinklage plays Tyrion as a vile, arrogant monster of a human being. He’s also a bit of a joke. But as the series progresses, Tyrion becomes much more sympathetic and, strangely, he earns your respect despite his evil behavior. In fact, Dinklage steals the show, and Tyrion easily becomes the most compelling character.

The plot is “Sopranos”-esque, too. It is complex, nuanced, and there are a great many characters. This is why I cautioned you above that you need to give this show time. There are several major storylines and then a half dozen additional minor storylines, and it takes a couple episodes before the show develops a rhythm. Once it does, however, the show does an excellent job of keeping all these different stories moving and gives you lots to care about.

I would not, however, compare “Thrones” to Middle Earth for several reasons. For one thing, the sets, while excellent, are not fantasy sets. You will not see incredible castles and stunning landscapes. Instead, you get a more “historically accurate” feel from this show — i.e., lots of wood construction, furs, torches, and a “brooding ’til ye can’t brood nay more” atmosphere. There are fantasy elements, but up to this point they have been rather few and far between. In the south, where the last survivors of the albino Targaryen family have fled, there is the prospect of a dragon. The Targaryens are seeking the help of the Dothraki, a group of barbarians led by Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa of “Stargate Atlantis” and “Conan”) who have dragon eggs in their possession. In the north, you have an incredibly large wall, guarded by the Night’s Watch, who are tasked with keeping supernatural creatures out of the realm. These creatures apparently thrive in winter, and winter in this world can last for an indeterminate number of years and is extraordinarily cold.

I also wouldn’t compare this to “The Lord of the Rings” because “Thrones” is cruder. For one thing, the dialogue in “Thrones” has a more modern cadence to it than “LOTR.” Also, there is a lot of swearing in “Thrones.” I’m not averse to swearing by any means, but it feels anachronistic and unneeded here, and the show could have been stronger without it. The same is true of the sex. There is a good deal of sex in “Thrones,” and while I have no problem with sex on film or television, it feels gratuitous here, as few of these scenes add anything to the plot and they go on far too long. It feels at times like the writer/director wasn’t sure the audience would entirely buy into the story and wanted to give the audience something else to keep them tuning in. And that’s too bad, because I think the time could have been better spent dealing with the complex plot.

So, to sum it all up, the sex and swearing may turn some people off, and the lack of fantasy elements so far may turn others off. The difficulty getting into the show may also stop some people. But I recommend looking past all of that. This is a solid show with fascinating characters. It builds suspense very well. It will surprise you repeatedly. And it holds a lot of promise that it will just keep getting better and better.

Finally, let me make one point. This show is truly innovative in a way. Up to now, most fantasy films have been of the “farm boy goes on quest” variety. This is one of the first to reject that formula and instead present a more complete fantasy world, where you delve into political and familial relationships. These aren’t cardboard characters playing pre-determined roles on a specific quest. These are complete people struggling to make the best of the world around them and overcome whatever challenges they face. This approach feels much more original, offers more to work with as a series, and, I would venture to say, is the future of fantasy.